Sean Penn surfs, shoots, sprints, punches and fights for his life in the geopolitical thriller “The Gunman.” At age 54, it’s easy to assume that Penn, as a rogue ex-special forces officer, is drifting into territory that Liam Neeson claimed just a few years ago with a series of action-heavy box office hits.
Add in the fact that “The Gunman,” in theaters Friday, is directed by Pierre Morel, who launched the “Taken” franchise and Neeson’s renaissance, and the comparisons seem even more apt.
But for Penn, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I think Liam Neeson is fantastic. I love Liam Neeson. But he’s a 6-foot-4, melodically voiced, masculine figure who is a very good man who’s only there to take care of the people he loves,” said Penn on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles. “I am a 5-foot-9, highly conflicted man who’s principally taking care of himself.”
Penn is even a little baffled about the cultural focus on Neeson in this case.
“I’m aware of the framing in the culture, but has nobody noticed Harrison Ford all of those years? There’ve been a lot of ‘geri-action’ heroes,” he added.
In showing extreme situations, whether it’s Jason Bourne taking down secret government operations or John McClane defying the odds to defeat a terrorist and save some hostages, action films can sometimes feel more disconnected from reality than sci-fi. That, of course, is part of the fun for actors and audiences alike.
Penn, however, was drawn to “The Gunman” and the character of Jim Terrier for exactly the opposite reason – it reminded him of people he knew.
It’s loosely based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel “The Prone Gunman,” a 1981 French noir about a mercenary assassin. Writers Peter Travis and Don MacPherson reworked the story to have a contemporary setting.
Not only did Penn jump at the chance to bring on some of his friends as consultants, he also took some time to focus and refine the bones of the script, taking what he knows about NGOs and military tactics and applying it to the story.
In the film, audiences meet Penn’s character in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006. A sniper-for-hire, Terrier draws the short straw and gets tasked with assassinating a mining minister, which propels the country into a devastating civil war. Eight years later, while digging wells for an NGO in the Congo, he discovers that there’s a hit out for him and sets out across Europe to find out why.
Along the way he encounters his own demons (PTSD) and some old ex-military colleagues (Mark Rylance and Javier Bardem) who’ve sold out their skills for high-powered jobs at shadowy organizations. Penn notes that though there are real-world parallels in “The Gunman,” it’s not meant to be a political movie.
“I don’t think there’s an enormous amount to be learned politically,” he said. The movie, for him, is about the consequences of violence.
Beyond the consultation with his friends, part of the preparation involved getting into fighting shape.
“If you’re able to do the physical demands of the movie, it changes the way you handle the other scenes and the way you move, the way you look. It’s a kind of no-brainer choice,” said Penn of his solid physique, which allowed him to do many of the stunts in the film.
“Sean is whatever character he takes on. He gives 1,000 percent that guy. He becomes that killing machine,” said Morel.
One thing Penn will not be doing in the future, however, is joining a superhero franchise. It’s a choice that separates him even further from many of his Hollywood peers.
“I don’t see myself putting my underpants on the outside of my tights for a role anytime soon,” he said. “I think that it’s a shame that we don’t have more faith in good stories that aren’t tied to such … packaged, childlike things. I don’t mind the movies themselves if they’re well made – some of them are – but I mind the way that the business has become so desperate, not to make good movies, but to make $200 or $300 million per picture at the box office.”
Penn’s next project, now in post-production, finds him back in the director’s chair in a drama about an international aid worker (Charlize Theron, who is in a relationship with Penn), and a relief aid doctor (Bardem) navigating a bout of civil unrest in Africa.
“It’s not like all of a sudden I’m going to start running around in action movies all over the place,” he said.