The Gray Man

Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Screenplay: Joe Russo and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (based on the book by Mark Greaney)
Stars: Ryan Gosling (Six), Chris Evans (Lloyd Hansen), Ana de Armas (Dani Miranda), Billy Bob Thornton (Fitzroy), Jessica Henwick (Suzanne Brewer), Dhanush (Avik San), Alfre Woodard (Margaret Cahill), Regé-Jean Page (Carmichael), Wagner Moura (Laszlo Sosa), Julia Butters (Claire), Shea Whigham (Six’s Father)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2022
Country: U.S.
The Gray Man
The Gray Man

Reportedly the most expensive feature film ever produced by Netflix (with a rumored price tag of about $200 million), Anthony and Joe Russo’s action-thriller The Gray Man is a fitfully entertaining series of increasingly larger action set-pieces strung together by a thin, globe-trotting plot. It draws liberally from the Bond and Bourne playbooks, but lacks the well-established wit and panache of the former and the grit and verité intensity of the latter. It certainly has its moments, and some of the action sequences pop, but it never becomes more than its individual parts; it is more concept than actual movie, a bunch of ideas stuffed together without any meaningful cohesion.

The “gray man” of the title is Ryan Gosling’s Six, a convicted murderer who is pulled out of prison by Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), who runs Sierra, a super-clandestine CIA operation that turns gifted convicts into lethal operatives (the “gray” suggests that Six is neither good nor bad, official nor unofficial). Years later, Six is drawn into a nefarious web of governmental deceit and power abuse when he is assigned by reigning CIA official Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) to assassinate a supposed “bad guy” in Bangkok who is selling secrets on the black market. Said bad guy turns out to be another member of the Sierra team who got the dirt on Carmichael’s illegal backroom activities (which include murder) and was attempting to sell it to the highest bidder to expose him. Six ends up with the evidence in his possession, which sends him on the run from Carmichael’s personal hitman, a smarmy sociopath named Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans). Lloyd is easily the best thing in the film; with his “trash ’stache,” slicked hair, and lounge lizard couture, he is a campy delight who still maintains an air of real danger. Most importantly, it is clear that Evans, who played the indelible Captain America in the Russos’ three Marvel films, had a ball playing him, which can’t be said for the rest of the cast, who go through the motions in semi-serious fashion, never quite sure if they should be taking this all seriously (ala the Bourne films) or playing at as a lark (ala much of the Bond franchise).

That in-betweenness pretty much sinks The Gray Man, which throws a lot of stuff at the screen, but doesn’t manage to make much of it stick. Six is aided by a fellow agent played by Ana de Armas, but there is no heat or romance; just a lot of near-death experiences. To create some kind of emotional investment, the story involves Fitzroy’s adolescent niece Claire (Julia Butters), who is kidnapped by Lloyd as leverage to make him to give up information. Claire is smart and spunky and has a heart condition, so we are meant to really like her and worry about her. Her needing to be rescued is also meant to add a human dimension to Six, but it doesn’t because it feels too much like a lazy plot device.

And, while Gosling is a fine actor who has excelled in virtually every genre imaginable at this point, Six is a dud as a character. Gosling is handsome, and he looks great leaping from exploding cars and ducking bullets and engaging in all manner of mano-a-mano fisticuffs with every other alpha male on the screen, but Six is never more than a cipher—and a seemingly indestructible one, at that—which is a real problem since he is meant to be the heart of a new franchise. That may be why Gosling has such a hard time disappearing into the character; at all times we feel him acting, playing the action hero. The truly memorably modern screen heroes—Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, even Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man—allow their actors to disappear while they’re on screen. All throughout The Gray Man, I was keenly aware that I was watching Ryan Gosling.

Joe and Anthony Russo have certainly demonstrated a flair for merging action and character. Their Captain America: Civil War (2016) was one of the better Marvel movies, although they got drawn into the overlong overkill of the final Avengers movies, whose “bigger is better” ethos they clearly carried over to The Gray Man. It doesn’t help that the screenplay, which was based on the first of the eight-novel Gray Man series by Mark Greaney (who collaborated with Tom Clancy and continued writing Jack Ryan novels following Clancy’s death), was co-written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Marvel alums who penned all three Captain America films and the final two Avengers films. One could imagine this story being told in a lean, mean fashion that evoked the grit-and-grime of ’70s American action films and conspiracy thrillers, but here there is just too much action, too little story, and too much bloat.

Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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