In Depth

The Gunman: Sean Penn and the rise of the ageing action star

A new political action thriller sees the Oscar-winning actor join Hollywood's swelling ranks of middle-aged marauders

Sean Penn's new action vehicle, The Gunman, which opens in UK cinemas today, is a thriller about a retired special ops soldier whose past comes back to haunt him. The film, directed by Pierre Morel (Taken) follows Jim Terrier, a damaged former private security operative who turns to humanitarian work to atone for his sins, but is hunted down by his former employers.

The full-tilt, high body count action film has an anti-capitalist ideology and features a 54-year-old two-time Oscar-winner as its star. It has been called an "idiotic, glorious and doomed leftist thriller" by Salon, and hailed as the return of "the existential hero" by in The Guardian.

It is also, as Chris Wallace points out in the New York Times, the latest entry in a booming subgenre of revenge movies made for, by and essentially about, middle-aged male actors. These films tap into paranoia about bad governments, and myths of male super-potency, says Wallace, and "judging by the rush of other silver foxes to join the hunt, middle-aged marauders are satisfying audiences and the box office alike."

Here are some of the recent films to star ageing action heroes. 


Pierre Morel's earlier success, Taken, stars Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative whose daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers for sexual slavery while holidaying in France. The film has been credited with reviving Neeson's career and transforming him into an action film star. And while it was met with lukewarm critical response as a "slick but brainless exercise", it went on to become a worldwide box office hit that launched the Taken franchise and a further two Taken films. 

The Equalizer

Antoine Fuqua's 2014 action thriller film is loosely based on the television series of the same name and stars Denzel Washington as Robert McCall, a retired black ops specialist in self-imposed retirement. But when McCall sees a girl victim of Russian mafia sex trafficking brutally beaten by her pimp, he can't stand by and do nothing, and risks his quiet life for justice. Reviews tended to call it more stylishly violent than meaningful, but The Equalizer went on to make almost $200 million at the box office.  

John Wick

Now 50, the former Gen X star Keanu Reeves is set to return as an ex-hitman in retirement after his wife dies. But he is forced to leave the quiet life behind after a group of gangsters take everything from him, even killing his dog. Set in a New York City riddled with bullets, John Wick has been called a stylish, thrilling, and giddily kinetic take on the assassin genre. It's due to hit UK screens in April.    

The Expendables

This 2010 ensemble action film sees a whole gang of ageing renegades team up for some serious action. Co-written, directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone, with Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke, it follows a group of elite mercenaries tasked with assassinating a Latin American dictator, but when one of their own crew is murdered they are out for revenge. Criticised for its plot, it was a commercial success, opening at number one at the box office in the US.

Run All Night

In Liam Neeson's latest action film, he's no longer ex-CIA but a mob hit-man who must reunite with his estranged son to flee the wrath of a vengeful crime boss played by Ed Harris. As Neeson tries to protect his son, he tells him, "Listen to your father for one night." The film has been criticised for its convoluted plot, but reviewers praise an on-form Neeson doing what he does best.


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