If nothing else, The Gunman gives us a scene in which Sean Penn goes surfing. Of all the mysteries of centuries of American film, one that has always vexed me in particular is, "How did the doof who played Spicoli turn into that guy?" If you haven't watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High recently—and the movie is older than Dwyane Wade, so why would you?—it's worth revisiting for Penn alone. It was his first major film role—he had a small role in 1981's Taps, which features a terrific and terrifying Tom Cruise performance (in an alternate universe, Cruise has a 20-year career as an amazing action-movie villain)—and there isn't a single second when he isn't just perfect.

You could write a thousand sonnets about the way Spicoli notes that he's in a U.S. history class by saying, "I see the globe right there." To see his face fall when he realizes that Mr. Hand is, in fact, a dick ... man, that's fuckin' life, right there. It is a wholly natural, completely unencumbered performance of pure sunshine: It is one of my favorite comedic performances of all time. And afterwards, Sean Penn would never be funny again.

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There'd be occasional moments: His big reveal in The Game is a grand laugh, and he's impressively unfussy in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. But every movie Penn has made since Fast Times has been a sprint away from Spicoli. It's as if the role that made him a star embarrassed him so much that he spent the next 30 years making certain we found him a humorless bore in every way possible. There were some great performances during that time, no doubt, but all rooted in that overpowering, often oppressive self-seriousness: Penn desperately wanted us to know that he had demons, man. Any semblance of a light touch is gone.

So, at the very least, he does surf in The Gunman. It's a brief scene, and it seems to exist solely to provide "characterization" for a character who basically is just a killing machine with a past he regrets: It's a way to make him "relatable." Mostly, though, it made me think of Spicoli. Now that Penn has gotten older, his features have gone a little more slack, and his nose has gotten a little bigger, and he's starting to even look a little more like Spicoli again. But that might just be me projecting.

The thing that's worrisome is that, well, the Great Actor might be gone now, too. We were willing to put up with Penn's petulance—the self-regard, the priggishness, the conveniently forgotten tendency sometimes to hit women over the head with a baseball bat—because he was giving us breathtaking performances, most notably in Dead Man Waking, the Oscar-lauded Mystic River, and Carlito's Way. But that's a long time ago now.

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Penn won his second Oscar for 2008's Milk, which was a good performance, but seemed to draw most of its strength from the contrast of a famous straight actor playing a gay icon: You could see him patting himself on the back, like he was successfully playing someone with a disability or something. (His lunatic willingness to go for it in I Am Sam reportedly inspired Simple Jack from Tropic Thunder.) Other than that, what exactly has Penn does since Mystic River in 2003? IMDB is a wasteland: Gangster Squad, This Must Be the Place, All the King's Men, The Interpreter, Fair Game ... what is this shit? (The one great movie he's made since then was 2011's The Tree of Life, and not only is he barely in it, his scenes are the worst, least comprehensible parts.) Penn has been giving us all this Great Actor-ly diva bullshit for 12 years now, without ever really giving us any of the acting that makes it worth it. (Worth it for some of us, anyway.) Now he's just another Media Personality.

Perhaps sensing this, Penn has clearly patterned The Gunman—which he co-wrote and co-produced—as his late-career action-movie pivot. He wants some of that sweet Taken action, so here he is, playing a former security expert for a Blackwater-type company who, after an assassination that might have started a war in the Congo, retires to do volunteer work as penance. Turns out, though, that the past comes back! And then he has to kill every sumbitch in the room. It's Penn going Full Neeson.

It doesn't really work. Liam Neeson, for all his glowering intensity, has an undeniable charm and relatability: You can believe him as a father and husband who just so happens to also be superior killing machine. Penn, though, is just a little bit too much of a weirdo. He has pumped himself up to absurd dimensions for the role—he seems to have paid particular attention to his biceps—but it doesn't make him look like a badass; it just makes him look like a movie star who's trying too hard. (At certain angles, he looks worryingly like Expendables-era Sylvester Stallone.) Penn is too strange, too lopsided, too twitchy to be much of a rock as an action star, and his obvious desire to become one is more off-putting than anything else. The story here is basic International Intrigue nonsense—with one or two too many subplots thrown in to pad the running time—which leaves us with little left to do but look at Penn straining and flexing. He gets an A for effort, but to no end other than the burnishing of his own vanity.

This is the grand joke of Sean Penn: That Method-y seriousness, that disappearance into a character ... it's all atrophying as he ages into pure look-at-me self-absorption. It's not just Spicoli that's gone; it's the actor himself. He's out there waving his arms, being Sean Penn, and screaming for us to see it, and the rest of us are all just sitting here, man, learning about Cuba, having some food.


Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.

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