Sean Penn’s Bulging, 54-Year-Old American Body Is the Star of ‘The Gunman’

Did you know Sean Penn was ripped? Fear not: there’s a whole movie devoted to helping you realize the extent of his musculature! With no other acting prospects showing up on his IMDb profile (which is not to assume that there aren’t any), it’s hard to tell whether his new film The Gunman is preserving and memorializing an action-hero persona Sean Penn knew he wouldn’t have for long, or represents an attempt to rebrand him as an almost-Arnold for future action prospects.

Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 1981 novel The Prone Gunman, the film — with the activist Sean Penn as a co-screenwriter/producer, and Sean Penn’s less humanitarian flesh bulges as the star — is 1/8 political conscience thriller à la The Constant Gardener or The Manchurian Candidate and 7/8 testicle. But Sean Penn, exemplary star of Milk and Dead Man Walking, is not generally mere “testicle” — and neither are co-stars Javier Bardem, Idris Elba or Mark Rylance — all some of the world’s more respected, smart, and seemingly tasteful actors. It’s funny, then, that they should all become embroiled in a film that, in its first ten minutes, asserts itself as vaguely political, then gets distracted by a tone-deaf Hollywood plotline and the bundle of brawn that, unexpectedly, is Sean Penn himself. (Spoilers ahead.)

The film’s focus on Penn’s body adheres to the wholly obsolete tropes that were already trite in film in the late ’90s, but diverges by virtue of the mere fact that they’re being applied to Penn. Most action movies are sure to highlight the hero or antihero’s body, as a large point of the genre is to, by proxy, fulfill male fighting/heroism fantasies (while the male viewer remains safe and sedentary), within some myth of identification through the very broad category of gender. And of course, nobody wants these fantasies to be flabbily fulfilled: these men who somehow save the world by making their bodies destroy shit must, themselves, look as streamlined as weapons. Sean Penn may have always owned one such body — but the fact that we’d never considered it until now illuminates the baffling gap in the actor he’s been up until now and that which he’s trying to be in The Gunman. 

The camera is wont to linger, in these films, on the physical attributes that make men “men” — the attributes that save the world, and the attributes that save and please the girl. But this film focuses more on Penn’s body even than his damsel in distress’ — a rare missed opportunity for an action movie to exploit femininity to purely titillating ends! She, played by Italian actress Jasmine Trinca, is presented less as a sexual object than Penn, whose doofy antihero hit man character we may find it hard to sympathize with until we see, say, a nipple, pedestaled by a perky pectoral, while simultaneously thinking, “such perkiness at 54?! I’ll sympathize with anything! That’s hard work!”

It says it all that a scene of introspection — an ostensible moment of soul-searching (so, obviously shot in front of a mirror) — shows Penn nearly naked. And the notion that his character’s mind is going — that, through a series of concussions, he’s developed too much plaque on his brain — is another excuse for the film to devote more attention to the physical. It begs you to look away from character and the broad political undercurrents the film founders in establishing, and asks, rather, that you focus on how the film’s title is a pun about Penn’s arms. The greatest statement being made by this movie — by the director of Taken — is: “Daddy’s still got it.”

Which is why it not only fails at delivering the original political statement it insinuates, but actually does a full 180 and becomes the target of its own inchoate critique. The film begins with Penn’s character — named, yes, Terrier — a hit man who’s part of a corporate operation to control mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and who’s pretending to be helping humanitarian aid workers in the region. When their unscrupulous operation doesn’t go according to plan, he’s called upon to assassinate the Congolese Minister of Mining. Javier Bardem’s character Felix, one of the leaders of the operation, sends Penn packing after the hit, forcing him to leave his out-of-the-loop humanitarian girlfriend behind, in Felix’s manipulative (and notably less nakedly featured) arms.

But the hit haunts Sean Penn’s character — so much that he later returns to the Congo to repent through real aid work, building wells. His presence attracts a flock of men who want to kill him to the community in which he’s doing selfless labor, leading to the murder of at least one innocent townsperson, and forcing the one Congolese character with a name and voice (a few whole lines of a voice!), Eugene (Ade Oyefeso) to save Penn’s life by killing. The critique here seems apt: we see the tacit evils of corporate colonization in resource-heavy but impoverished societies; the fact that this group of criminals masquerade as “aid workers” draws on the ulterior motives of many forms of Western intervention.

In the aforementioned scene, the antagonists bark, “Where’s the white man?” and because the film has already established such a close relationship to Sean Penn’s body, his whiteness here stands out even more than it otherwise would; his veneer is being scrutinized for action-heroization purposes, and it naturally leads to other forms of scrutiny. It stands out even more, retrospectively, because the film soon forsakes the Congo and the Congolese characters it never cared to establish (the IMDB’s consecutive listing of “Village Boy” characters speaks to this). It departs from the Congo to plunge us into the film’s tunnel-visioned purpose of making Penn America’s next virile, world-and-more-importantly-lady-saving action figure, to focus on those heroized, pasty features. From here, he goes from London to Barcelona to reclaim his lost love and bring down the people who are after him: the Congo has all but disappeared. The film leaves right when it’s finished its immediate critique: ironically, in its criticism of the Western capitalist stake in foreign resources, it uses the Congo — in which over 5 million people have died of famine and disease from dislocation through the many conflicts since the Civil War in the late ’90s — as a prop.

The film climaxes in Spain, with a goofily touristy lens aimed at what it seems to consider the center of Catalan existence — bullfighting — which, incidentally, no longer exists in the region. The setting seems chosen merely to juxtapose Penn’s shirtless-but-for-bulletproof-vest body with that of the angry bulls. With this, the idea that it’s forsworn all integrity to remodel Sean Penn’s acting identity seems abundantly clear. That such a ludicrous, Diehard-ish action scene would end a movie that attempted to begin with a political message makes the film’s initial intent seem like even more of a failure. Unlike Penn and the bull, these two modes of storytelling are not well juxtaposed. Oh, but it gets worse: when all is resolved (and of course it is), the film returns to moralizing. Now, Terrier’s character is neither going to help as a matter of manipulation or guilt: he’s going to help because that’s what people should do. The film ends as he makes out with the woman he saved, in front of the Congolese humanitarian compound, romanticizing aid work as the camera zooms out on an impoverished community in the Congo, whose members we never got to know.

Though Penn has, in the past, made strides with own activism, and has managed to transcend the notion that celebrities get engaged as a PR requisite, the insertion of a message he holds dear into this flagrant vanity project belittles the actor’s otherwise commendable human rights work. There’s nothing whatsoever inherently wrong with setting a movie in a foreign place, but one hopes that there’s a reason. One would have expected less six-pack-encased navel gazing from the actorvist.

Actors can make differences, and as spokespeople to the masses that’ve come to worship them, their words can go a long way. But for this very reason, it can also seem utterly disingenuous. This film, insomuch as it only arbitrarily addresses Congolese issues, setting them in the background behind Penn’s white body that sweats for them, unfortunately serves as a testament to the nature of much Hollywood activism: it can be a mere strengthening device of a star’s image through what might be an arbitrary attachment to a cause. This is not the Sean Penn we’ve come to know, whose work has been thoroughly respected: this is something new, and weird. Perhaps he thought he was saying something — but ultimately, Sean has Penned a film about Sean Penn, and worse, the about the heroism of Sean Penn’s peen. Does Daddy still have it?