The Democratic Republic of Congo is a crazy quilt of warlords and corporations clashing over the nation's mineral riches, and "security expert" Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) is ostensibly there to protect a humanitarian medical mission, whose staff includes his lover Annie (Jasmine Trinca). But he has a double life as the triggerman for a planned assassination of the mining minister, a death that ushers in the total collapse of law and order. Terrier flees after completing his assignment, leaving Annie in the arms of his romantic rival Felix (Javier Bardem). After eight years of nursing a concussive head injury and a guilty conscience, Terrier returns to the Congo as part of an aid organization -- but when a horde of machete-wielding mercenaries come looking for "the white man," he realizes that the mess he left behind isn't done with him yet.
Unfortunately, the full details of that relatively straightforward plot are kept secret from the audience until at least three-fourths of the way through The Gunman, at which point several characters have died, much blood has been shed, and Sean Penn has taken off his shirt many, many times. Director Pierre Morel (Taken) is well-versed in delivering kinetic violence (one of his previous credits was acting as the cinematographer for the Jason Statham slugfest The Transporter), but why would a filmmaker refuse to share a basic understanding of what's going on until so late in the game, as if the viewers were untrustworthy restaurant patrons who might run away with the complimentary breadsticks?
That lack of faith in the audience pervades every aspect of this movie, from the ham-fisted exposition to the smoldering glowers Terrier and Felix repeatedly share with each other, à la The Young and the Restless. The logical inconsistencies are legion: In one scene set in a crowded pub, Terrier mutters to an underworld confidant (Ray Winstone) that, as a man on the run, he wants to keep a low profile. Then, quite literally with his next breath, he issues a beatdown to a soccer hooligan. Later, Terrier asks his getaway driver to circle the block until he returns from investigating an apartment. When said apartment explodes, the returning driver gasps, "What happened?" Terrier's utterly irony-free reply: "Nothing to worry about." One could charitably argue that the filmmakers decided to have this movie's absence of logic mirror that of its concussed hero, but the end result feels like they assumed everyone in the audience has a cognitive impairment as well.
This paper-thin role is a strange choice for Penn, too. Terrier is an action-movie tough guy without any motivation except to get the girl and punch anyone nearby, tasks so alien to Penn's screen persona that he's almost miscast -- and not for the same haw-haw reasons faced by Keanu Reeves as he transitioned from surfer dude to action hero. In the decades since Jeff Spicoli, Penn has amply proven himself as not only a writer, director, producer, and actor, but also as a humanitarian who has provided relief aid in war and disaster zones. That social conscience doesn't mesh with a movie that uses a very real African conflict as a convenient backdrop for a bloody, politically meaningless, and essentially soulless action flick. The Gunman might be Penn's bid to step into an action franchise, but a talent of his caliber deserves better than this.