In 2008, something special happened: A low-budget action movie called Taken hit theaters. It starred Liam Neeson as a badass extraordinaire, taking on his first true action role after a career highlighted by films like Schindler’s List and Les Misérables. From there, Taken became a global phenomenon, launching Neeson’s career as a bona fide action star. Very quickly he began starring in big-budget Hollywood blockbusters in similar roles, spawning two sequels to Taken and one gigantic payday for an actor who spent much of his career focusing on smaller, more focused films (Star Wars, Episode I the exception).
No one could have predicted the long-term effect that one movie would have on Neeson’s career, yet here we are, living in a world where a 62-year-old character actor is Hollywood’s biggest action star. That being so, it was only a matter of time until others followed suit, and with one upcoming release we have just that. Coming out this weekend, Sean Penn stars in The Gunman, directed by none other than the man behind Taken, Pierre Morel. In it, we see a bulked-up, musclebound Penn pushing 54 years old, fighting off criminals and law enforcement alike.
Unfortunately for Penn, early returns are showing he may not experience the Liam Neeson effect he had hoped for in taking on the role. Rotten Tomatoes currently has The Gunman at 18%, while the A.V. Club’s tepid review noted that it was “too disorganized and sloppy to make sense.” Perhaps it was a self-contained try at a different type of movie, but given that this is his first appearance since The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in 2013, it feels more like a comeback attempt than a one-time foray into a new genre.
So what is it that drove a former Oscar winner to follow Neeson’s lead into a Morel action flick? It could very well have been Penn’s lack of recent work that led him to this point. Perhaps his tumultuous personality has made him difficult to work with in Hollywood, putting him in a position where he has to prove his name will bring in a box office haul. Looking at the incredible success of Taken, it makes sense to attach your wagon to Morel in a time of need. But it would appear as though they forgot to actually make a halfway decent movie in the process, which could in turn land Penn in a worse spot than where he started leading into The Gunman.
What we might be seeing here is one simple fact: There can only be one Taken. Neeson’s burst into the moneymaking action movie world may very well have been a case of the right movie at the right time. It made no apologies as an entertaining film that featured exciting fight sequences and little in terms of substance. The biggest complaint levied against Penn’s Gunman seems to be its attempt to overcomplicate a story that has no business trying for anything more than what Taken did to perfection.
Maybe Penn will take another shot at the action genre again soon, but his first steps definitely aren’t putting him in a position to succeed to anything close to the extent of Neeson following 2008. Given Penn’s acting pedigree, he may be better served going back to Oscar-worthy cinema, leaving the fight-centric titles to the experts. We can only hope this serves as a lesson for anyone looking to make a similar jump in their careers: If you’re going to jump genres, make sure you do it with the right movie.
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