"Don't do anything stupid," the old CIA pal growls to his retired "Company" assassin friend.
We've already seen this killer's blackouts and dizzy spells, viewed his X-rays and heard a doctor tell him to avoid any more concussions, head trauma or even loud noises, so we know what constitutes "stupid."
But naturally, that's exactly what Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) does. Terrier is a guilt-ridden man whose efforts to atone for his past sins count for nothing when those sins come home to roost.
In The Gunman, Penn shoehorns a few of his pet causes — non-governmental aid organizations (NGOs), CIA interference in the Third World and multi-national corporate misconduct — onto an utterly conventional assassin-hunted-by-assassins thriller.
It works better than it should, because the high-mileage Penn playing a high-mileage killer is an easy fit, and Penn has the chops.
But The Gunman plays like a vanity project for an actor long past his vanity-project age. With every shirtless moment (he even surfs, in the Congo), every dramatic drag on his ever-present cigarette, every scene with the do-gooder doctor who "got away" (Jasmine Trinca), Penn tests our reserve of good will.
Terrier was the trigger man in the team shooting of a Congolese official who was interfering with rapacious multi-national mineral corporations. Eight years later, he's digging wells to get fresh water for the villages there. And that's when assailants show up to get him.
Revenge? A desire for his silence? Terrier makes improbable escapes, implausible ones and preposterous ones as he ventures from London to Barcelona and Gibraltar in search of answers.
Ray Winstone's the old pal, and Javier Bardem plays the old romantic rival who "got the girl." Mark Rylance is a savvy old colleague, and a mysterious Idris Elba flicks away at a pricey cigarette lighter, not revealing his hand until the third act.
I like the hard-boiled dialogue, even the preachier stuff.
"Not all of us wanted to turn our sin into profit." "Do you keep a diary of all the horror we created?"
Bardem and Rylance stand out in the cast, with Elba and Winstone reduced to set-dressing roles. Penn does his best Liam Neeson in the lead, a hard "ex special forces" type who wipes out whole teams of killers in assorted lovely Spanish settings. The violence is very bloody and personal, and Penn has never had trouble conveying violence.
But the only novelty here is those settings, as characters slip into stock "types" and the hard-boiled lines devolve into big speeches, delivered at gunpoint, by hero to villains, and vice versa.
Penn doesn't work much, and this idea of combining his two careers — as actor, producer and co-writer, and as humanitarian was well-intended. But take away the preaching, and this is just Penn's version of a late-career Mel Gibson movie. He should be better than this.