Sometimes Sean Penn's face is enough to anchor The Gunman, the ambitious and only partially successful action thriller from Taken director Pierre Morel. Penn's character, soldier-turned-mercenary Jeff Terrier (that surname tells you a lot), is both a lover and a fighter, capable of both intense lovesickness and high-and-mighty moral standards. As the movie opens, Terrier is stationed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo circa 2006, a time of devastating national strife following years of civil war. He's a former special-ops guy assigned to protect a group of NGO workers, among them comely doctor Annie (Italian actress Jasmine Trinca), with whom he's romantically involved -- they nuzzle each other at the communal dinner table, as Terrier's bossy colleague Felix (a dyspeptic-looking Javier Bardem) slinks around jealously.
Terrier may look like someone who really cares, but it becomes clear early on that he's accepted a not-so-selfless mission. Fast-forward eight years: He's a changed man, now doing humanitarian aid in the Congo himself, but he's also lost his lady love, and worse yet, someone is trying to kill him. In his search for answers, he trots the globe, frequently removing his shirt so we can see how trim and finely sculpted his torso is: If Penn's got the face of a guy who survives whatever comes his way, his body is definitely the sort of thing you have to work for. Penn's vanity -- both in the way he shows off his bod and in the way he drives home the nobility of the once-wayward Terrier -- is either the most deeply annoying thing about The Gunman, or the one thing in it that actually works. I'm leaning toward the latter.