It’s been a while since Sean Penn has filled the big screen. He certainly has the “gritty” chops to play a hit man named Terrier, but he’s a little less convincing in his undercover role as social worker in war-torn Africa. (Well, OK, he seemed to be supervising construction crews using heavy equipment, which is at least a little more credible.) What’s even less believable is that the gentle and lovely young Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a medical volunteer in the refugee camps of Nigeria, would be attracted to Terrier. But of course, she doesn’t find out about his “secret life” until much later when he suddenly found himself having to evacuate immediately without the niceties of giving notice to anybody, including Annie.
Penn has obviously spent a lot of time in the gym in preparation for this role and he’ll need all his well-chiseled core strength to deal with the close-quarter hand-to-hand combat against the tough guys who are after him.
This is not really about CIA covert operations, though, so much as it is the competing interests of faceless multinational corporations which specialize in mining operations. It seems that certain parts of central Africa are rich in mineral resources, but the years of civil war and the decades of governmental ineptitude and corruption have combined to create a state of permanent chaos, where only the strongest (and most ruthless) survive. But Penn’s character is less sympathetic because he’s in trouble not for what he did for patriotism, but money, which haunts him. And he’s not the only one dealing with the demons of regret: His friends Felix (Javier Bardem) and Cox (Mark Rylance) have both become wealthy, successful businessmen, but there’s an unpleasant edge to both of them. Worse, Terrier seems to suffer from some post-traumatic stress disorder. Concussions caused by blows to the head in non-refereed fisticuffs, which Terrier seems to not be able to avoid, so the intermittent blackouts continue.
None of these guys turn out to be very good about “going straight,” which is part of the moral here: Once you enter this violent world of taking other lives, you don’t exit easily. They’re all living in their own individual hells. Yes, the supposed love triangle between Felix, Annie and Terrier makes for a different kind of tension, but basically this one doesn’t love the love. It loves the violence. As a result, this movie won’t enjoy a wide churchgoing audience. There are also noticeable production continuity miscues that decrease enjoyment even for those of us more inured to the rough edges. But at the very least, we have exotic locales, and not every movie concludes with a bullfight in Barcelona.
Questions for discussion:
- Can those who have lived by the sword truly be happy with laying down the sword and shield and studying war no more?
- Would forgiveness be possible for a sinner like an assassin? If so, in addition to repentance, is a certain kind of penance required?
Ronald P. Salfen is the supply pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Kaufman, Texas.