Sean Penn wants his Liam Neeson rehearsal to play out under his progressive rules.

Penn is targeting aging action hero status with “The Gunman,” directed by the man who gave Neeson his “Taken” boost: Pierre Morel. That means Penn, 54, will save the day, pump lead into the bad guys, and prove you don’t have to be twenty-something to be an action hero.

Whereas “Taken” delivered a straightforward rescue saga, “The Gunman” gets its hands dirty with international affairs with a side order of European guilt. Yes, it’s partly our fault that the Democratic Republic of Congo is a disaster, but at least Penn’s character is ready to personally apologize on our behalf. And, of course, take out the trash in the process.

 

“The Gunman” opens with Penn’s character, ex-Special Forces agent James Terrier, protecting aid workers trying to bring comfort to the locals under near-constant attack. It’s 2006, and the region is in turmoil because of greed, corruption, and soldiers who think nothing of hacking off limbs of those who stand in their way.

Terrier isn’t simply protecting the workers, a dedicated bunch including his main squeeze, Annie (Jasmine Trinca). He’s been hired to assassinate a key political figure. They don’t call him “The Gunman” for nothing. Once that job wraps, he must leave the country . . . or else.

When the action resumes eight years later, Terrier is back in the Congo, this time truly helping the locals in any way he can. But his past will haunt him anew, putting his life in jeopardy while forcing him to reconnect with old business associates.

Spicoli Got Buff

“The Gunman” is first and foremost a vanity project. Penn cowrote the screenplay, and he frequently appears without a shirt, the better to show his gym resolve. His long, thick hair is always coiffed in the appropriate tough-guy manner, a bit tousled but expertly so. We even get the clichéd visual of our hero in the shower, running his hands through his hair to show his inner turmoil. And although his character commits an act for which he isn’t proud, he’s the picture of decency, honor and, in the bedroom, virility.

The story’s engine isn’t simply Terrier’s lust for survival; it’s the love triangle between him, his lady love, and a rival portrayed by Javier Bardem. The talented Spaniard plays a fellow agent-for-hire who loves Annie as much as he hates Terrier. Think the “Twilight” saga’s love triangle but with less nuance.

Bardem looks as if he’s auditioning for another, more lighthearted role here. His character is alternately lovestruck and calculating, and his drinking problem results in some truly embarrassing screen moments.

We all know Annie will be put in harm’s way at some point, and that our hero will call on a salty old pal (thank you, Ray Winstone) to help level the odds. Formulas are on screen for a reason—they work. Still, the uneasy mix of recycled storylines ultimately hurts “The Gunman.”

Good thing Morel knows how to shoot a compelling action sequence, the kind where you hold your breath and forget the film’s many flaws. Did Morel really think a slow-motion effect during Terrier’s love-making was a wise idea?

There’s a humdinger of a sequence mid-film that papers over the lousy love triangle, redirecting the film to a satisfying final half-hour. The film’s bad guys are an intriguing lot, the kind that exist only on screen but make their comeuppance worth the bother.

Penn’s Ideological Switcheroo

Some liberals were outraged by “Taken‘s” choice of villains, which they characterized as xenophobic, a charge that had at best flimsy support. “The Gunman” counters that by gunning for those evil European corporations out to rape the developing world . . . and worse.

“The Gunman” takes viewers to not just the Congo but also Barcelona and London, giving the film a whiff of those Jason Bourne adventures. There’s even a surprise or two along the way. How often do you see action movies settled during a bullfight, for example?

Another welcome touch—a medical sequence showing that Terrier is far from invincible—offers mixed rewards. Yes, it’s good to see a dash of reality in the aging-action-hero format. Still, Terrier’s condition flares up only when the film needs help getting us to the edge of our seats.

Penn’s attempt to be the next Liam Neeson has merit. “The Gunman” shows he isn’t embarrassed to wallow in genre trappings, provided that it’s on his terms. And despite his modest height, he’s physically imposing when coiled to strike.

And heck, he can act, which puts him a pace or two ahead of some familiar action stars from the ’80s.