By Richard Crouse – Metro In Focus
Sean Penn is back on the big screen this weekend in The Gunman, his first leading role in almost four years. It can’t rightly be called a comeback because he never really went away. Supporting roles in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Gangster Squad have generated column inches, but in the last five years he has devoted more energy to raising money for earthquake relief in Haiti than to being a movie star.
In the film he plays Special Forces military contractor Jim Terrier. By day he protects foreign workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo but he moonlights as a hired gunman for big corporations. His assassination of the Congolese Mining Minister forces him to flee the country and changes the course of his entire life.
It’s what Penn jokingly calls “geriaction,” an action movie starring a middle-aged actor. Other than that, don’t expect to hear him speak a great deal about his new film. “Honestly within a week after I’ve finished shooting a film I’ve almost forgotten it,” he said recently.
In February he was honoured with an honorary Cesar Award for “choosing his films with sensitivity and commitment.” At the ceremony the “legend in his lifetime” watched a clip reel spanning the width and breadth of his career, including excerpts from Dead Men Walking, Mystic River and Milk.
Later the actor said, “I remember playing none of those scenes. I remembered the movies [but] I saw myself in scenes with actors I didn’t even know I’d ever worked with!”
To jog Mr. Penn’s memory here’s a “compenndium” of some of his memorable roles:
1. In Milk Penn won a Best Actor Oscar playing the real-life Harvey Milk, a native New Yorker who became America’s first openly gay man to be elected to public office. Penn fully embraces Milk, from the thick New York accent that characterized his speech to the goofy grin that endeared the real-life activist to his supporters, both gay and straight.
2. This Must be the Place is a rare thing. I speak of that elusive beast Pennigma Seanun comoedia—the Sean Penn comedy. He plays a retired and world-weary American rock star living with his wife (Frances McDormand) in Ireland. This is Sean Penn like we’ve never seen him before. With poufy hair, black toenail polish and affected vocal cadence—like Andy Warhol on Quaaludes—he creates an intriguing, strange character.
3. In Hollywood dramedy Hurly Burly Penn played against type as Eddie, the hyperactive casting agent. It’s an emotionally raw performance—witness Eddie try and use cocaine to snort away his troubles—but one without the studied glumness that he frequently brings to the screen.
4. Fair Game could be re-titled One Hundred Minutes of Sean Penn Yelling ‘If We Don’t Tell the Truth No One Will!’ He’s Joseph Wilson the real-life whistleblower who claimed the Bush administration falsified information about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Penn is passionate, crafting a performance so big it has it’s own gravitational pull.
5. Finally there’s All the King’s Men, a movie memorable for all the wrong reasons. Penn is a fine actor, but as Willie Stark, (loosely based on Louisiana governor Huey P. Long) he is so over-the-top it’s as if he’s acting in a different movie than the rest of the cast. It’s a vein-popping, arm-waving performance that suggests that maybe he should lay-off the Red Bull.