For an elite ex-Special Forces guy trained in covert ops, Jack Terrier seems to have forgotten how not to stand out in a crowd. Played with a stony countenance and honed pecs by Sean Penn, the titular hero of The Gunman has just fled Africa, where a heavily armed gang failed in their mission to kill him. Now he's in London, determined to find out who ordered the hit.

Surely he's being followed, so why not wear a camo backpack, a flak jacket, and the kind of black shades favored by Navy SEALS as he zigs and zags on the bustling sidewalks? He's lucky a concerned citizen doesn't finger him to the cops. The bobbies, I mean.

Later in this dubious action thriller - Penn's first stab, if you will, at the genre - Terrier has a meeting in an amusement park in Barcelona. Why not? And why not stand in the center of a rotating carousel, among all the little kids and parents bobbing on the candy-colored ponies. "Mommy, why is that man in the black parka standing there? He doesn't look like he's having fun."

The Gunman has been adapted from the Jean-Patrick Manchette novel The Prone Gunman and directed, in a prone fashion, by Pierre Morel, who gave Liam Neeson a career kick-in-the-pants with the first Taken. If Penn was hoping to similarly morph into late-middle-age avenging hero, he has picked the wrong project. Terrier (doesn't it make you want to say, "Woof!"?) is not only plagued by guilt for the "bad things" he did in the Congo in 2006, but he's also suffering from headaches, blurry vision, and nausea. While he's in London, he gets a CAT scan. The young doc advises him to find a less strenuous line of work.

It's too bad. With a cast of good guys and bad guys (not hard to figure who's who) that includes Idris Elba, Mark Rylance, and Ray Winstone, and an itinerary of Third World encampments and First World villas, The Gunman has the makings of a decent le Carré knockoff. But from the early scene in a Congo bar, where Javier Bardem looks on jealously as Terrier and his humanitarian-worker girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), trade kisses (cut to Bardem's envious, hurting mug again, and again) to the third-act chase through a Barcelona bullring, obviousness prevails.

Bardem plays Felix, who once partnered with Terrier in assassinations and other nefarious deeds. Now, eight years on, Felix has gone legit - and gone and married Annie. He does not look happy when Terrier reappears on the scene.

In fact, no one in The Gunman looks happy. And what happened to chivalry? If a fierce squad of goons is coming after you and your ex, whom you still love, and there's only one Kevlar vest to throw on, don't you offer it to her?

Apparently not.

The Gunman ** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Pierre Morel. With Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Jasmine Trinca, Mark Rylance, Idris Elba and Ray Winstone. Distributed by

Open Road Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, action, profanity, adult themes).

Playing at: Area theaters.EndText