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In the Book of Regenesis, we learn that Liam Neeson in the “Taken” movies begat Denzel Washington in “Safe House,” which begat Kevin Costner in “Three Days to Kill,” which begat Pierce Brosnan in “The November Man.”

Now the latest aging star to play an ex-CIA agent who gets dragged back into the game is Sean Penn in “The Gunman.” At 54, as taut and weathered as a leather belt, Penn might be the most believably badass of them all. And with “Taken” director Pierre Morel at the helm, the film doesn’t insult our intelligence the way most of the knock-off movies do. But neither does it add much to the dialogue about the human or political consequences of American power. It’s simply a well-executed thriller that leaves us stirred but not shaken.

Penn plays Jim Terrier, who works for a private security firm that protects medical-relief workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (also known as Zaire but more properly called the Worst Place on Earth), circa 2006. Terrier is tough as nails, but he has a soft spot for doctor Annie (Jasmine Trinca).

Terrier is forced to leave the Congo after his real employers enlist him to assassinate the nation’s interior minister, who is standing in the way of multinational corporations. That’s the kind of topic we expect a Sean Penn-produced movie to investigate, yet the African characters are merely stick figures.

Eight years later, Terrier is back in Africa; but despite his morning surf ritual, he’s got a bum ticker that symbolizes his noisy conscience. When local thugs try to snuff him, he smells the dirty hand of his old employer and travels back to Europe to crack the case. All too predictably, every ex-colleague who ever gave Terrier a fishy look (or gave Annie a lascivious one) is a suspect in the deadly double-cross. So the movie devolves into a checklist.

At the top of the list is Felix (Javier Bardem), who’s living a little too comfortably in Spain.

Bardem should not put his performance on a highlight reel, and neither should Idris Elba, who inexplicably gets second billing as an Interpol agent who arrives just in time for a last-act shootout in Gibraltar.

The best excuse for watching “The Gunman” is Penn. His first mainstream leading role in a decade is worthy of comparisons to Matt Damon in the “Bourne” movies; yet it’s also disappointingly shorn of the humor and humanity of which this great actor is capable.

The saving grace is that the paycheck will allow him to continue doing good works in real life. Maybe “The Gunman 2” can take place in Haiti.


What “The Gunman” • Two and half stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 1:55 • Content Violence, language and some sexuality

Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.