Hollywood ruins another cult crime novel with The Gunman

A dead formula. STUDIOCANAL

There were high hopes for The Gunman, the latest film by the creator of Taken. It seemed to be pulling out all the stops, with a cast featuring Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Idris Elba and Mark Rylance. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, the movie is an utter flop, as reviews attest.

The film is long and tedious, the characters remarkably uninteresting and shallow. The cold beauty of the images merely reinforces this impression of distance and unnaturalness. But even if the film won’t please moviegoers and cinephiles, it does trigger some interesting questions about the nature of adaptation.

The original novel, The Prone Gunman, by Jean-Patrick Manchette, is one of the most influential French romans noirs. It was published in 1981 in the iconic “Série Noire”. Ostensibly it is about a man with a plan, who seeks to defy the sociological odds through crime, to gain status, respect and love. Part desperate education novel, part sarcastic chivalry romance and part cynical fairytale – it is, above all, the story of an individual crushed by his own ideologies, by the values he embraces and by the system he serves. A man reduced to silence; a lone wolf turned into a sheep and becoming part of the herd.

Filmic failures

The recently released film is actually the second adaptation of this novel to the screen – and the second to fail.

The first one was made in 1982, and featured Alain Delon in the principal role. It would have been comically bad, had it not been so ideologically suspect. It turned a leftist critique of spectacle industries and domination into a spectacular celebration of consumerism (and a far-right apology of individualism, machismo, sexism and just about every “ism” under the sun). This might have been the ultimate détournement had it been parodic. But the collision between these two incompatible visions and the apparent unawareness of the director to this, pointed towards an utter lack of understanding of the book.

A glittering cast. STUDIOCANAL

What is so good about Manchette’s book is that he chose the most formulaic of plots (a killer wants to retire, his contractors object, difficulties ensue) for a brilliant commentary on alienation and loss of control. Clearly, the plot is not what the book is about – and the characters, all of them unsympathetic, are not to be identified with. So insisting on keeping both plots and characters from the book, as both adaptations do, but without the social critique, is entirely missing the point.

Capitalising on cult

The status of Manchette is even more set as a cult literary figure 20 years on. Perhaps the writers of the movie were overawed by the author’s aura, but it’s more likely that they sought to capitalise on his wide fan-base. More’s the shame. Because Manchette was a political writer, and this second movie fails on the political count just as spectacularly as the last.

For all the neo-colonial references – which are rather opaque, contrived and heavy and which make the film so slow and so dull – this is a very conservative (to say the least) film produced on the basis of a progressive novel. Just look at the scenes in Africa, the incredibly patronising representation of humanitarian work.

Even more stark is the denial of meaningful agency to Anne (Jasmine Trinca), the only female character. The scene in which she is rescued from a cellar is simply embarrassing. In the novel, she takes the lead, sexually too. She mocks Terrier, who, the author tells us, is “pauvre, esseulé et bête”; poor, isolated and stupid. And, she discovers, impotent, too. He does not stand much of a chance against the social odds which have been rigged against him.

But incarnated by Sean Penn, by contrast, he is well-to do, connected and sharp. Potent, for sure. And muscular. Very muscular. It is not clear why turning a situationist anti-hero into a suntanned bodybuilder might have seemed like a good idea. What it shows, though, is that more is less. All attributes and accessories, such as a surfboard given to the filmic protagonist make him less interesting, not more.

This is absolutely a Hollywood movie of our time. Things have to be on display (for what?). The hero has to keep moving (where to?).

The title of the novel is The Prone Gunman. It contains an honest assessment of historical and material condition. He is to be defeated, as an individual. The movie is titled the Gunman. He, on the other hand, does not lie down. He’s a stand-up guy. The book commented on the real world, offered a real set of choices, whereas the film adheres to a dead formula, championing the hunk.

The shots of televisions towards the end are almost too ironic, the news giving a final account that goes unchallenged. This, too, contradicts the book, where the fabrication of such “truths” by special agencies is debunked. The solution is so predictable as to become nearly unwatchable.

Just like in a short but memorable scene of the novel, where a series of empty suits in shop windows dangling price tags suggest the emptiness and uselessness of commodity and its fetishisation, the movie theatre where I watched was empty. Ideologically emptied images, playing in front of empty seats.

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