Dave Boyle (Man from Reno) Talks Pierre Morel’s The Gunman

A Liam Neeson fanatic goes to see the latest entry in the Great One's canon (except it's actually Sean Penn who's in this one, not Liam).

My expertise in all things Liam Neeson is well known to my social media followers. I was first in line to see the Great One try to get his memory back in Unknown. I watched him grapple with transatlantic mayhem in Non-Stop. I shed tears when he announced that he will retire from action films two years hence. I even keep a little collage of my favorite Liam moments on the wall above my computer for inspiration:

A Christmas gift from my girlfriend. She’s very understanding.

So it comes as no surprise that I should be asked to review the latest Liam Neeson* movie to hit theaters: The Gunman. Excitedly, I packed up my notebook and pencil and journeyed to Dolby Burbank for my first ever press screening.

As the movie began (in deafening Dolby Atmos), it quickly became clear that it was going to depart significantly from the winning formula I have grown to love so much. I would not for a second discourage anyone from seeing it, mind you, let’s just say it didn’t quite conform to my Neesonologist beliefs.

So… since I am no critic (nor much of a writer), I’d rather not attempt a review of The Gunman but instead will just list the handful of ways in which it departs from the usual Liam Neeson fare:

Liam Neeson is Not in It: The Neeson role is played here by Sean Penn.

No complaints there; Penn is a very fine actor who has yet to deliver a less than 100 percent committed and credible performance. I was especially pleased to see his Sweet and Lowdown mustache again, even though he shaves it off after the prologue. (They had to show the passage of time, so I guess it makes sense. The “Eight Years Later” title card wasn’t enough.)

Penn’s casting in the role has some interesting consequences. While Neeson has always had a bit of vulnerability about him — you can’t quite believe his set of “skills,” which is part of the fun — Penn is incredibly buff. He’s so muscular that he looks like he could take down a moose with his bare hands. He’s also frequently shirtless.

I walked out of the movie newly inspired. Inspired to join a gym.

Sex: Usually in these films, the Neeson character is a battle-scarred but gentle old grizzly bear who seems to have left the pleasures of life behind for the discipline of self-imposed celibacy.

Sure, there is often a potential love interest (Julianne Moore in Non-Stop), an ex-wife or lover who has moved on (Famke Jannsen in Taken), or, most poignantly, a spouse who seems to have forgotten our hero entirely (January Jones in Unknown). But the Irish rogue keeps his hands to himself. Neeson seems to recognize just how damaged he is and keeps a respectful distance.

In contrast, Penn’s Terrier can barely keep his clothes on, and we’re treated to multiple scenes of him grappling with co-star Jasmine Trinca. Which is not a bad thing, just an interesting departure from the formula. Penn is a lover and a fighter. There’s also an additional novelty in the form of a love triangle between Penn, Trinca and Javier Bardem. Oh yeah, Javier Bardem is in this movie too. And Ray Winstone, and Idris Elba (albeit briefly).

Political Awareness: Up until now, the general rule in the Neeson formula is to reduce geopolitics and racial politics to their very basics or ignore them altogether (the weird 9/11 references in Non-Stop notwithstanding). Everything is very black and white, and there’s little attempt at political correctness.

The Gunman tries to paint things in shades of grey. Between the gunfights and stabbings, some care has been taken to show the consequences of corporate interests in developing nations, among other issues. Penn’s credit as a co-writer and producer shows that the guy obviously cares and doesn’t want to make just another demolition derby.

All very commendable, but it seems out of place in a movie that, I kid you not, includes a scene of — spoiler alert — a guy getting rammed and trampled during a bullfight, Looney Tunes-style. That part was great, but got even better when I found this in the press notes:

“Barcelona is an anti-bullfighting city and no bullfighting has taken place in the city since 2011.”

The Achilles Heel: A Liam Neeson character needs to have some kind of cross to bear, whether it’s alcoholism (Non-Stop), amnesia (Unknown) or… whatever he had in Taken. For the formula to work for a picky Neesonphile like myself, however, this condition needs to be woven into the plot. Neeson needs to overcome his Achilles Heel in order to save the day at the end.

In The Gunman, Penn’s character suffers from debilitating headaches which midway through the movie are diagnosed as plaque buildup in the brain. The doctor describes it as “similar to Alzheimer’s” which had me thinking we were heading into The Memory of a Killer territory. But no, the condition just seems to cause Penn to keel over and barf every once in a while, which is awesome.

So while the critic in me wants to deduct a few points for failure to stick to the formula, I’m gonna put this in the win column for the copious vomiting scenes, which rival Gabriel Byrne’s in Miller’s Crossing.

So bottom line, should you drop your hard-earned money on The Gunman? Sure, why not!

My criticisms are minor. I was a little disappointed that Dolby Burbank doesn’t serve popcorn or allow food or drinks in the auditorium. But boy, those gunshots, buildings blowing up and bullfights sure sounded great in Atmos!

It was great to see Bardem, Winstone and Elba show up. I could picture them flying in for the shoot, wrapping their scenes in about four hours and then going out to dinner with Penn — sitting around the table talking like tough guys. That image put a smile on my face.

And director Pierre Morel is one of the few guys who can shoot action this way (handheld, frenetic) and not have it turn into mush in the edit. There’s an admirable level of geographical coherence when the bullets start flying.

But the MVP award goes to the prop department — that barf was amazing!

* The genre, not the man.

Dave Boyle is a Los Angeles-based writer, director and editor. His latest film, the mystery-thriller Man from Reno, won the Best Narrative prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival and was recently nominated for the John Cassavetes Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. It opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on March 27, expanding to the major markets in April.