The image of a shirtless Sean Penn, toting a surfboard along a beach in the Congo Republic, sets up certain expectations for "The Gunman." We've already seen Penn's mercenary character, Jim Terrier, shoot a man with a high-powered rifle, but it's his gym-toned musculature that tells us we're watching an action film. To paraphrase Chekhov: If you introduce a bulging bicep in the first act, you'd better use it by the third.

"The Gunman" seems to be Penn's attempt to join the ranks of older action stars like Liam Neeson, whose "Taken" became an international hit in 2008. That film's director, Pierre Morel, also directs this one. "The Gunman" has the simple structure of a genre flick: a hero haunted by his past, the girl he must protect, the friend who becomes an enemy.

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So who decided to turn this potentially entertaining thriller into a dour drama about global politics? The screenwriting credits offer a clue: Along with two other names, there's Penn. It's hard not to suspect that the actor, known for his humanitarian efforts abroad, is the one asking us to confront third-world poverty and American culpability, even though all we really want is a good fistfight.

Penn's Terrier is the movie's biggest problem. He's a tough protagonist to like -- a paid assassin who murders an idealistic Congolese politician. He regrets it, mostly because he must leave the country and his relief-worker girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca). Years later, Terrier himself lands on a hit list and seeks help from an old crony, Felix (an overripe Javier Bardem). Care to guess whom Felix has married?

"The Gunman" puts Penn in a few decent brawls and shootouts (and make-outs), but his Terrier is mostly interior: The actor squints and smokes a lot. What grit the film has comes from two Brits, Mark Rylance and Ray Winstone ("Sexy Beast"), as hard-nosed black-op types.

"The Gunman" aspires to the moody ambience of Peter Weir's "The Year of Living Dangerously," but it's too trivial to be taken seriously and too serious to be any fun. As an action-hero bemoaning his role in the developing world, Penn shoots himself in the foot.