I know the difference between agreeably diverting, reasonably commercial action fare and a shoot-em-up thriller that is more or less complete dogshit and a waste of time. The latter tends to wind up with Rotten Tomato or Metacritic ratings of 35 or less (sometimes a lot less) and the decent-but-not-top-tier films usually rank in the 50s, 60s or 70s. Or something like that. I know that if a film has a 21% Rotten Tomato rating it’s almost certainly not worth the price. And that, strangely, is the current RT rating for Pierre Morel‘s The Gunman (Open Road, 3.20), and I’m telling you this is completely excessive and unfair. Ditto the 42% Metacritic rating — too low. I can see some critics saying “not bad not good enough” but there’s no justification for pounding this thing into the pavement.

The Gunman is a hit-and-miss second-tier affair that will probably perform poorly this weekend, even though it’s a moderately satisfying, handsomely filmed, well-cut and believably choreographed old-school thriller with a not-great-but-not-too-fumbly screenplay. It’s trim and efficient for the most part and quite beautiful to just stare at, and I had a good time sinking into it as a kind of exotic atmospheric ride or a rugged, suspenseful high-style thing. I processed it as I would a brief vacation that I wasn’t paying for.

I didn’t find it especially gripping or enthralling but I really didn’t mind it. It’s a movie to sink into, to “visit”, to flip through as you would a classy travel magazine. It has clothing to covet, workout regimens to admire, and decent performances from Sean Penn and a team of skilled, disciplined supporting players (Javier Bardem, Jasmine Trinca, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance).

I regret to say that Penn doesn’t have enough of that commanding-charisma thing to carry a film like this. He whipped himself into great physical shape but he looks too creased and grizzled and he won’t stop with the cigarettes, and he just seems too morose and internal and hidden behind a scowl. You accept him as a guy with a certain presence but you don’t feel the allegiance that you normally do for a powerhouse movie star. I’m not trying to pour water on the fire or make his life difficult (he’s a cool guy), but Liam Neeson has it and Penn doesn’t.

But the film, to repeat, is relatively tolerable. You could do a lot worse. I know what it tastes like to to bite into a shit sandwich and this is not that. It’s…what, a relatively tasty roast beef sandwich on toast with sliced tomatoes and exotic mayonnaise and fresh green lettuce? It’s a lot better than tunafish on rye, I can tell you that. And it’s no hot dog.

Roger Moore has called The Gunman “a late career Mel Gibson movie”…okay. But one with a social conscience. And Penn wears much cooler tough-guy threads than anything Gibson has ever worn. (Credit should go, I suppose, to costume designer Jill Taylor.) And he has a great-looking Gold’s Gym bod. And the film makes use of a truly wonderful old Spanish home, apparently located in a rural area outside Barcelona, that is just to die for. Cheers in this respect to production designer Andrew Laws and art directors Gemma Fauria and Stuart Kearns.

A 20something woman I was sitting next to started laughing during a second-act scene in The Gunman, and when that happened I said to myself, “Okay, this is supposed to be a heavy scene about emotional exposure and trying not to get killed by gun-toting bad guys and this woman is laughing?” I knew at that instant that The Gunman was doomed but it’s really not as bad as all that. I almost gave the woman a dirty look but I didn’t care enough to get into a bickering thing. I was expecting much worse (it looked tired in the trailers) and for the most part I was actually pleasantly surprised.

When you’re watching a film that you know from the get-go is just a time-filler or popcorn-burner you start paying more attention than usual to scenery and the cutting and the quality of the physicality and the lighting and the production design. That’s what I was doing. Not “into it” but looking at this and that and thinking back to my time in Barcelona and going “wow, what a beautiful old home” and thinking how I’d like to visit the Congo some day, etc. Well, not really. I expect, however, to travel to South Africa at the end of the year. Let’s see what happens.