Martin Terrier (Sean Penn), an ageing international operative, wants to retire and reconnect with his long-time love Anne (Jasmine Trinca), but he is forced to fight his way across Europe in order to clear his name after the shady organisation he used to work for turns on him.

International men of mediocrity: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba edition.

Sean Penn is serious. He’s a serious actor, a respected director and a politician with two Academy Awards under his belt (for Milk and Mystic River). It’s surprising then, to see him buffed, bronzed and rippling with veiny muscles in his first real foray into action, The Gunman, a B-movie thriller directed by Pierre Morel (Taken) about a reformed hit-man on the run from his former associates.

It’s absolutely necessary to comment on Penn’s body in this film because he appears unnecessarily shirtless, shiny and bulging in so many scenes. Kudos to his trainer for making the 54-year-old look like an action hero half his age, but the loving showcasing of his honed physique is just one of many slightly bad-taste decisions evident in this otherwise competent and often exciting film.

Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel The Prone Gunman, the film was co-written and produced by Penn, who also stars as James Terrier, a gunman who’s done bad things for good reasons. The story begins in the war-torn Congo in 2006, where Terrier ostensibly works to protect an airstrip bringing in medical supplies, but is also a mercenary on the side. He’s in love with a beautiful doctor, Anna, played by Jasmine Trinca, the Italian actress so wonderful in films like The Son’s Room and Honey. Here she’s given very little to do except speak in stilted English and look lovelorn and sexy in a collection of men’s shirts and bare brown legs. Completing a love triangle is Felix (Xavier Bardem), who smoulders jealously whenever he sees the lovebirds canoodling. Felix hires Terrier to assassinate the DCR’s Mining Minister, but one of the conditions of the hit is that the gunman must exit the country immediately, thus abandoning his love. “Look after her for me,” says Terrier to Felix, who clearly relishes the task ahead.

Eight years later, Terrier is back in Africa as a humanitarian worker, trying to make amends for his past sins (and surfing like a pro in his downtime) when he’s the victim of a highly organised assassination attempt. Important people want him dead. It’s the first of a number of well-executed and very violent set-pieces in the film and establishes a pattern: Terrier is attacked by a group of assailants and, using an imaginative combination of bare hands, knives, grenades and guns, he proceeds to dispatch of them with machine-like efficiency and impressive displays of muscles. The only thing slowing him down is the terrified girl he’s trying save (Annie has reentered his life, still looking good in wet hair and men’s shirts), and the accumulated head-trauma that’s making his vision blur and his memory foggy.

The locations are exotic in an old-fashioned Hemingway sense. From Kinshasa, to London, to Barcelona and Gibraltar, the man on the run fights in increasingly picturesque settings, culminating in no less dramatic an arena than a bullfighting ring. (A baddie meets the kind of gruesome end you might imagine in such a setting, though in the film’s credits we’re assured bullfighting is now banned in Barcelona.) There may be a veneer of serious politics here – news broadcasts fill in key details about the Democratic Republic of Congo, NGOs, Rebels and International Mining Interests – and perhaps the film might make us muse momentarily on the evils of colonialism, corruption and capitalism in third world countries. But really, it’s all about engaging in that ancient action movie pleasure of watching a well-trained killer fight for his life and save his woman. Not silly enough to be pure fun, and not serious enough to be taken as a comment on anything real, the film walks a strange line. This is made even stranger by the fact it’s populated by brilliant actors (including Bardem, Mark Rylance, Ray Winstone, Idris Elba) giving surprisingly average performances.

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1 hour 55 min
In Cinemas 16 April 2015,