After reading over my last Atmos Blu-ray review of Jupiter Ascending, I felt the minute-by-minute breakdown of the film’s audio became not only tedious for me to write but also likely a tad excruciating for you to read. Dissecting the minutiae of each bit of the soundtrack just didn’t make for a compelling story, and if you hung through that whole post I say both, “Thank you,” and “I’m sorry.”
Perhaps it was just that the movie itself was grueling to watch and didn’t make for an exciting review to read. Perhaps I was angry at the Wachowskis that they had burned up more of their Matrix cred with this special effects spectacle. Either way, I’ve decided I’m going to take a different approach with the review of The Gunman this time around and I’m just going to narrow it down to the five best audio scenes in the film. If you have a preference on the way I handle future Atmos reviews going forward—next up is Insurgent, the second film in the Divergent trilogy—then I welcome the feedback in the comments section.
The Gunman is based on a French novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette titled, “The Prone Gunman.” Unfortunately, I haven’t read that book so I can’t offer any comparisons to the film. The movie is a pretty decent political action thriller in the older-mega-action-star vein, something you would expect to see from Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, Jason Stratham, Brad Pitt, or Tom Cruise. The problem here is that no one seemed to have told Sean Penn that big action movies are usually fun, and he plays the role of Jim Terrier with the white-hot intensity and seriousness of someone looking to impress the Academy for a best acting or best picture nod, instead of just taking the audience along for a fun ride. In addition to Penn, The Gunman features a pretty strong supporting cast including an easy-on-the-eyes Jasmine Trinca as Terrier’s love interest, Annie, and a wonderfully quirky Javier Bardem, playing an ex-partner, Felix.
Beyond the action, this film seems like a vehicle for Penn to show off his new superhero body. Seriously, Penn is like crazy chiseled in this movie. You get your first look at him shirtless in chapter four and it is clear that this is no Spicoli getting baked and ordering pizzas in class; this guy guzzles muscle milk and Creatine powder between shreds. It’s practically distracting how bulked out he is.
For a movie called The Gunman there actually isn’t a ton of gun battling, and in fact there are really only a few big action sequences throughout the near two-hour runtime. In fact, they could have just as easily called him The Knifeman as I believe he has just as many killings with that weapon. This is a slow developing, thinking-man’s action film with a lot of dialog that I would recommend NOT starting at 10:30 at night after a second martini. The first three chapters set up the back story, with Terrier working as a mercenary/black-ops contractor called on to assassinate a Congo Minister of Mining and then disappear, with the rest of the film echoing the repercussions of that single, massive gunshot.
Fortunately, the soundtrack makes terrific use of Dolby Atmos with a lot of jungle ambience, an explosion that rains debris around the room and one really impressive jet flyover. These are the top five Atmos audio moments in the film.
***Warning: Spoilers ahead…
#5 The Big Bullet
The assassination scene develops with a lot of tension in chapter three as Penn unpacks, sets up, and sights in his sniper rifle and then sits back and waits to see if he is going to be the shooter called on to take the shot. When he gets the call, the music comes in, adding tension to the moment as he stares through the scope waiting for the Minister’s vehicle to slide into range so he can take the shot. When Penn squeezes off the round at the 13-minute mark, you get a huge sonic concussion wave from the massive rifle’s blast. This is a big gun, and the audio carries the large caliber round’s weight appropriately. The bullet rips through the speakers overhead, whistling down the left side of the room, and smashing into the car, blasting through the windshield and utterly destroying the passenger. The bullet’s flight path perfectly matches the on-screen perspective, and as this is the pivotal moment in the film setting up the events for the rest of the movie, it is handled with the right amount of weight and sonics.
#4 PTSD Trauma Disorientation
Very early in the film Penn claims that his memory is going, and he has to write things down, foreshadowing his problems to come. Later on, he is diagnosed with a brain injury that has been caused by all of the concussive blows and explosions that he’s been around. The result is that at several points in the film Penn goes through these kind of near black-out, disorientation, hallucination flashback moments and the accompanying audio really does a great job of putting you right in the moment with him. At the 22-minute mark in Chapter 5, the audio swirls around the room and radio chatter is mixed up to the ceiling as Penn struggles to keep it together. Then, at 1:23 in Chapter 16, as Penn comes in and out of his concussive state, the audio fades to match along with a steady post-bomb-blast ringing all while Cox’s (Mark Rylance) dialog swirls around the room and up into the ceiling speakers.
#3 Underground Aquarium Battle
Chapter 16 begins with Penn’s character riding a merry-go-round at an outdoor fair/circus. The room is filled with tons of voices, music, and laughter that revolves around the room as it circles, making for a great audio illusion. You can really hear the audio traveling 360 degrees around the room, and it is a great Atmos object-tracking effect. However, the scene really takes off when Penn forces Cox into an underground area, and the room is filled with the atmospheric sounds of humming machines, air blowing, and dripping water all mixed aggressively up to the ceiling speakers, really putting you in the underground space. As they move through the space, you are aware of drips and clanks and a claustrophobic sense to the mix, reminding you that you are underground. When the gun battle breaks out, the bullets have a ton of weight and depth, and the blasts have a more immediate, concussive sound because of the concrete, low-ceilinged surroundings, with bullets slamming into concrete, chipping and ricocheting around you.
#2 Bullfighting Finale
The film’s climatic finale takes place at a bullfighting ring, as Cox tries to lure Terrier in close using Annie as bait. The ring is a huge, outdoor, open space with a ton of great crowd ambience. The room is filled with cheers, shouts, band music and applause putting you in the center of the action. The ceiling speakers are used to great effect, echoing the noises, and including announcements from the ring’s PA, really placing you right in the middle of the crowded outdoor space. The scene cuts back-and-forth between the gun men chasing Penn and the POV of being seated in the arena, and the audio shifts wonderfully to define and establish the scenes. At 1:38 Penn releases a bunch of bulls who charge an attacker and run through the center of the listening space, all the while accompanied with the sharp, punctuated blasts from silenced pistols.
#1 Country House Ambush
This marquee demo is found in Chapter 11 at the 57-minute mark and lasts about seven minutes. The first gun shots come in big and loud from the front right as Felix, Terrier, and Annie are attacked by multiple assailants. It’s a terrific demo scene with a ton of action and intensity and culminates in an amazing inferno of audio as fire crackles all around the room. Be warned, the scene is pretty brutal, especially near the beginning where Felix takes a rather unfortunate gunshot to the head, so demo it with care. The battle rages around the estate, resulting in shattering glass, splintering wood, and the tinkling of falling brass around the room putting Atmos’ object tracking to wonderful use. Throughout all the mayhem the dialog remains clear and understandable. The scene concludes with Terrier and Annie trapped in a bathroom, where the bad guys pour in a flammable substance and then light the room on fire. I had always thought that Atmos ceiling speakers were truly made to convey overhead rain sounds, but after hearing how well they are employed to handle the roaring fire of this scene, I’m willing to rethink that. The flames ignite with a whomp! that seethes through the room and then continues as the fire burns and rages all around, crackling right through your listening position. The fire billows and swirls and boils all around the room, raging overhead and leaping from speaker to speaker, putting you right in the middle of the inferno and sucking all the air from the viewing space.