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Armed and Tedious: Sean Penn Bulks Up for ‘The Gunman’ and Shailene Woodley Gets Stuck in ‘Insurgent’

‘The Gunman’ is unconvincing and incoherent. ‘Insurgent’ is an even bigger mess.

Sean Penn now has a body that invites scientific study. The veins in his arms are the size of fire hoses. His pecs and abs converge to form a diamond in the upper middle of his trunk. These are the things you tend to notice in The Gunman because the frequency with which Penn is half-naked is not unnoticeable. You notice not because his shirtlessness is sexy but because it feels pathologically vain. He’s playing an American operative named Jimmy Terrier, whose assassination of a Congolese mining minister sets off a series of international calamities — for him. Penn moves from scene to scene almost solely to find new excuses to wear nothing. He’s 54, and the prominence of his body is a matter of prerogative. At that age, when you’ve still got it, flaunt it. But Penn doesn’t simply flaunt it. He Stallones it.

The opening minutes put you in a hopeful place. Broadcast news footage establishes that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is under siege. Civilians are caught in a cross fire featuring the government, rebel militiamen, and private contractors battling for control over the country’s coveted western-bound natural resources. Thousands have been killed, injured, and displaced. Members of NGOs are risking their lives to save lives. The ground is laid for a decent political thriller.

But within five minutes, the movie declares its true priorities. Jimmy saunters into a Kinshasa bar, toting a mustache, looking for his lady love — Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a doctor at a camp — the very lady for whom his pal, Felix (Javier Bardem), has the hots. You can’t believe war-torn Congo is being used as the backdrop for the love triangle scene in Tequila Sunrise, but here we are, with Jimmy making out with and waking up beside Annie, who rises from bed and proceeds, in sunlit splendor, to do the beautiful-woman-stands-on-a-balcony-wearing-only-a-man’s-dress-shirt thing.

After the assassination, Jimmy has to vanish on Annie and the contracting company, which, eight years later, has spread — cancerously, one presumes — around the globe. He resurfaces off the coast of Africa, topless, on a surfboard (wetsuits are for pussies; so, apparently, are mustaches, since Jimmy’s is gone). He rises from the water like Botticelli’s Spicoli. Now Jimmy is do-gooding for a well-digging NGO, breaking all the rules (catching waves is a security risk). One afternoon, mid-dig, a quartet of rebels comes after him, and he obliterates three of them (his shell-shocked assistant shoots the fourth). What do they want? Whoever sent them needed a vial of Jimmy’s blood for confirmation of his death.

Worried, he flies to Europe for answers from his old colleagues. One guy (Mark Rylance) is near the top of the company and knows nothing. Felix is in Barcelona, shacked up with Annie, and refuses to let Jimmy have her back. These, alas, are the stakes for a movie titled The Gunman and gratuitously featuring an actual humanitarian crisis as a backdrop: The girl is mine.

So we get a fancy-restaurant scene with these three, in which Jimmy surprises Annie by showing up and Bardem surprises us by being terrible. His acting here is so gassy that each of his scenes ought to end with “excuse me.” He’s bad with gusto, of course. “You’re humiliating me,” says Annie to Felix. “The way you stare at him humiliates you!” he replies, with a hiss. She flees, Jimmy chases after her, gives her his address to give to Felix, and, a scene later, opens the door and finds her standing before him ready to lock mouths and genitalia. Kinshasa’s burning, but who cares? This sex is on fire, too.

Annie is a musty Marion Cotillard–Penélope Cruz part. Trinca’s from Italy, and in Italian (and with actual writing), she can act. Here she’s somewhere between Isabella Rossellini and a bulbless lamp. Trinca’s here for the movie’s villain to kidnap and drag to the climax at a Barcelona bullring, where an almost enjoyably stupid, kitchen-sink finale awaits. Before that, Annie and Felix’s country villa is so extravagantly demolished that you hope they’ve got action-movie insurance. Ray Winstone and Idris Elba turn up for cruelly brief bits, and Rylance proves he can’t think of a reason not to go to town on any acting assignment. Has there been a movie to span such a gamut of sleazy-sexy men? In Spain, you’d call it morbo. Penn’s rendition thinks it warrants ambassadorship.

I object to The Gunman because it’s unconvincing and incoherent. It gives Jimmy post-concussive head trauma, which causes him excruciating blackouts and reflects the state of mind in which this movie appears to have been concocted. Director Pierre Morel also did the original District B13, the first Taken, and the fragrant stink bomb From Paris With Love, each of which rocketed off Luc Besson’s assembly line. This is a Joel Silver production, so it prioritizes “boom” over “LOL.” Without Besson’s sense of the consciously absurd, Morel is left to conjure his own version. That’s how you wind up with that bullring sequence. But the whole movie feels commissioned, as if Penn saw Liam Neeson and John Travolta and thought, Stunt doubles are also for pussies. Stab me! Dislocate my shoulder! I’m gonna win the scene. And I’ll smoke many cigarettes as I do! (Anton Corbijn’s The American, with George Clooney as an assassin in Europe, was a sleepier, artier, less steroidal trot over similar terrain.)

Penn takes a screenplay credit on The Gunman, shared with Don Macpherson and Pete Travis. It’s a puffed-up misapprehension of the pure pulp of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman, from 1981. That puffing up leads to my second objection. Why bother with all of this international intrigue just to treat Penn’s body as a tourist attraction? By the time he’s running around that stadium wearing only a bulletproof vest above the waist, you’re certain you’re seeing a parody of vanity, except Penn’s acting in the last 20 years has become so generally joyless that he makes you feel blasphemous for laughing at him. This is the problem with his inside joke at last month’s Academy Awards to Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Who gave this guy a green card?”). You don’t know how to laugh with Sean Penn because he doesn’t seem to find himself funny.

When Tom Cruise is half-dressed in a film, you can cheer his ridiculousness — he practically turns himself on. What turns Penn on about himself often seems to have little to do with the movies. He’s among the cause-iest of stars, having dipped a steel-toed boot into one political quagmire after the next. A Hollywood activist like Angelia Jolie survives this disjunction between being an action figure and a humanitarian because she works mostly in the realms of melodrama, science fiction, and fantasy. But touristic self-importance pollutes The Gunman. Penn’s preening obstructs your view of atrocity. He doesn’t care that, like the “Jimmy” Neeson’s currently playing in Run All Night and the “Jimmy” Penn played in Mystic River, these are immoral heroes given heroizing plots. Stardom is its own morality. Now it’s as if Penn can’t do a lousy action movie without even a patina of world betterment. But the world he’s trying to better here feels pitifully tiny — it’s his own.

Insurgent-1Andrew Cooper/LionsgateI feel bad for these Divergent movies. They’re a mess, mostly because the Veronica Roth books they’re based on are a mess, too. I appreciate the attempt to try to make this world — an obliterated, totalitarian Chicago — as watchable as possible. But there’s too much to keep straight. The first movie explained that the city’s been carved into five factional camps determined by aptitude and personality type: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. Some are Factionless. The series’s hero, Tris (Shailene Woodley), is most rare: a multi-factional called a Divergent.

The second movie — Insurgent — keeps explaining. Tris has joined with members of Dauntless who are now in pursuit of taking out the corporate oppressor, a hard-faced Erudite named Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet, leaning all the way in). Sensing a coup, Jeanine needs to open a mysterious box that she believes will restore order. But only a Divergent can unlock it, and this can be done only by luring one in and jacking into her nervous system. Six human lab rats have died trying. But Jeanine deduces that Tris is The One and must be captured.

Costumes are supposed to help tell who’s who. The gang over at Amity, for instance, all seem like cashiers at an Amish food market, outfitted all in dark, synthetic-looking fabrics, and a cheery demeanor; Dauntless looks ready for Mad Max: Turn Off the Dark. But everything about these movies seems substandard. The effects are probably state-of-the-art. They just don’t look that way. (All 3-D ever enhances is a sense of cheapness.) In movies, there are action sequences that defy physics, and action sequences, like the ones in Insurgent, that defy coherence. Forced to open that box for Jeanine, Tris must hang from coaxial cables, while in a virtual world she swings on metal rods and crashes into rubble and fire. It’s painfully off-brand sci-fi: The Nay-trix.

Through it all, Tris’s macho-emo Dauntless boyfriend, Four (Theo James), comes to her rescue. (Every time someone says his name, I hear a baby trying to say “Thor.”) When Divergent opened last year, I joined the chorus of yawners who complained of Roth’s intellectual opportunism — you think George Orwell; you think The Hunger Games; you think “Somebody call a lawyer.” Naturally, that holds for Part 2. Roth pilfers but fails to dramatize, and so the movies (Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback are Insurgent’s credited screenwriters; Robert Schwentke directed) have no higher idea to point toward, not one that aroused any excitement for the remaining two installments.

It should help that head-turning actors keep turning up — Octavia Spencer, Janet McTeer, Daniel Dae Kim, and Naomi Watts are new; Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Zoë Kravitz, Mekhi Phifer, Maggie Q, and Ashley Judd are not. But they show up to advance more of the plot. No one has anything to play. Not only does the movie have no real drama, it lacks an emotional center, like the one Jennifer Lawrence supplies for The Hunger Games. You miss the à la carte funk and spunk that Elizabeth Banks and Jena Malone give to those movies, and the seasoning Donald Sutherland passes along.

Insurgent too easily reverts to violence — and in a neutralizing manner, too. I’ve never shrugged at this many massacres, suicide attempts, and point-blank murders. It’s startling how not startling all of the grisliness is. This leaves Woodley with only conventional displays of toughness: head smashing, gun toting, glass shattering, none of which she executes with any conviction. She has no rousing speeches or memorable lines, just haircuts, marksmanship, agility, and tears, all of which sound like the very last thing these movies need: more factions.