THE GUNMAN. There have been a number of comparisons made lately of the various late-middle-aged Hollywood actors recently restyled as action stars. This amounts to lumping everyone who makes a shoot 'em up in with the current king of such things, Liam Neeson. Yes, I see it too. And I'll try not to beat that dead horse too much here, beyond saying that Sean Penn has now joined the club, with Neeson's benefactor, Taken director Pierre Morel, behind the camera.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, circa 2006, Jim Terrier (Penn) is part of a security detail protecting a mining site. He's gotten himself involved with a doctor doing aid work, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), who remains blissfully ignorant as to what he's really doing in the Congo. His liaison to the mining company, Felix (Javier Bardem), jealous of Terrier and Annie's relationship, activates Terrier and his team for an assassination, knowing full well Terrier will subsequently have to leave the continent.
Eight years later, Terrier has returned to the Congo on his own to do humanitarian work and try to atone for the damage his actions have caused. (And to surf, we learn from a completely unnecessary scene which establishes an element of character to which we never return). One day while he's drilling a well, some local bad guys show up to murder him. We all know that's not going to happen, and it comes as no surprise that our protagonist is a proficient practitioner of violence. Now that people are trying to kill him, though, Terrier has to figure out why. He winds up in Spain by way of London, where he reestablishes contact with Felix, Annie and some of his old contractor cronies.
This all adds up to a rather clumsy, belabored pseudo-detective story with a minimal-to-non-existent payoff. It is punctuated by a number of shootouts, at least one explosion and a disproportionate volume of expository dialogue. Which is really a shame, because The Gunman squanders a solid cast and a decent premise. Penn is possessed of an undeniable gravity and screen presence, but he seems wildly out of place in this context. Morel and the screenwriters fail to infuse the story with the seriousness it and Penn's performance need to establish any resonance. There are glimpses of something grittier and better, which makes the end result all the more frustrating. For example: Terrier suffers from a brain injury that affects his memory and balance. Instead of digging in to what this condition might really mean, or offering any genuine consequences, it just becomes a convenient plot device intended to heighten tension. In fact, more import is given to scenes wherein he can showcase his impressively sculpted torso. Then there's the Felix character, an alcoholic mess of jealousy and regret whose story Bardem barely gets to tell. Even the setting, which allows the climax to take place at a bull fight, feels indulgent and miscalculated.
The biggest disappointment here is that The Gunman fails to excite or to provoke. It's packed with violence, some of it almost compelling, and the story is ostensibly about corporate manipulation and disregard for human life, but it's ultimately pretty dull and predictable. R. 115m.
DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT. I didn't particularly care for Divergent, part one of this second-tier, would-be cash factory, and I admit that I don't remember much of it. Off the job, a lapse like this could be attributed to my own habits. But in this case, Divergent, like Insurgent, just isn't that interesting.
Part two picks up pretty shortly after the ending of the first installment, with Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), her paramour Four (Theo James), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and her foil Peter (Miles Teller) hiding out among the friendly hippies of Amity (which is kind of like a Humboldt retreat center). Almost immediately, thugs from the Dauntless and Erudite factions show up in armored trucks and start raising hell. Tris, Four and Caleb escape and make their way back into the city. Along the way, they're forced to fight it out with some factionless street-rat kids, who eventually take them into the fold. There's quite a bit of precipitous and inelegant plot-meandering along the way, which all amounts to Tris being the most important, most powerful individual in Chicago — maybe the world. No spoiler.
The costuming, set decoration and overall design of Insurgent are almost impressive and immersive enough to carry the show, but not quite. Likewise the strong performances from Woodley and Teller, talented actors both. But the pacing, the rickety and over-loaded plot, and the strangely blithe attitude toward violence undermine the movie's positive attributes. PG13. 119m.
— John J. Bennett
GET HARD. Will Ferrell plays a clueless white boss who enlists an African American employee he assumes is a tough guy (Kevin Hart) to coach him before doing time in San Quentin. R. 100m.
HOME. Jim Parsons and Rihanna respectively voice an alien runaway and little girl in this Dreamworks animated buddy movie. PG. 93m.
TIMBUKTU. A drama centered on a cattle-herding family in the Jihadist-controlled city. In French. PG13. 97m.
AMERICAN SNIPER. Bradley Cooper plays a Navy SEAL in an intense and moving biopic/war movie that doles out adrenaline and domestic devastation in equal measure. R. 132m.
CHAPPIE. Stylish visuals and brisk editing outweigh heavy-handed sci-fi moralizing in an AI action movie starring a tragically kind-hearted police robot. R. 120m.
CINDERELLA. Kenneth Branagh's adaptation makes an old story new with classic Hollywood style, solid lead Lily James and the wicked-chic Cate Blanchett. PG. 113m.
FOCUS. A charismatic Will Smith plays a con man in a paint-by-number heist movie with some fun moments and too few surprises. R. 104m.
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE. Funny, charming Taron Egerton steals the show in this imaginative action comedy about a street punk who becomes a spy. With Colin Firth and Samuel Jackson. R. 128m.
MCFARLAND USA. The story about a cross-country coach (Kevin Costner) hits all the marks so that even the expected triumphs yield a few tears. PG. 128m.
RUN ALL NIGHT. Liam Neeson and Ed Harris face off in a hitman drama with some visual and narrative flourishes, but not enough for more than a weekend rental. R. 114m.
SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL. Maggie Smith and Judy Dench are back for the sequel as Brits abroad. PG. 124m.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS. This David-and-Goliath business trip comedy tries too hard for both edginess and warmth, touching on big topics and abandoning them before any real risks or enough real laughs. R. 91m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill