With its frantic action scenes and brawny stunt work, The Gray Man could be an insecure cousin to the Bourne, Bond, and John Wick flicks. As an inferior product, Gray overcompensates by being bigger, busier, and louder, all in the vain hopes you won’t notice how mediocre it really is. Put another way: That’s a really soft two-and-a-half at the top of this review. At the same time, this movie also benefits by being released the same year as Red Notice and Uncharted, both of which were like taking a shot put to the Nutter Butters. Both of those action epics also had big stars, enormous budgets, and scripts that could’ve been written in crayon. Compared to either of those duds, The Gray Man is like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Goldfinger, rolled into one.
And don’t get it twisted, this movie is loaded–dare I say festooned with clichés. You’ve seen some version of this film many times before: It’s entirely populated with badass spies who look like smoldering GQ models and speak in cool assassin lingo. The men always sport perfectly-trimmed stubble and the women never have smudged makeup, even when they’re crawling out of a flipped and burning Audi. Also, people get perforated with knives and bullets, only to carry on like that Black Knight in Holy Grail. Basically, all this is similar to a Fast and Furious entry, but about 30% less sucky.
Based on the (supposedly) well-regarded novel by Mark Greavey, this particular hayride centers on Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling), whose name sounds like a deodorant for douchebags. The film begins in 2003, as Six turns 21 in prison, doin’ life without parole. (I don’t know if those numbers are accurate, but if I have the chance to work Merle Haggard lyrics into a movie review, you can bet your barracho beans I’m gonna do it.) Anyway, uh…the hell was I talking about? Oh yeah, Arctic Blast is doing a long stretch in the joint, when a mysterious man makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) is starting up a risky black ops venture, where the Agency recruits lifer convicts with loose morals to be 007 clones. Anything beats time in the clinky-clink, so Sierra Frost agrees to be a stone-cold killing machine.
Cut to right about nowsies. Six has long settled into a life of cappin’ bad guys. Okay, class. Just shout the answer when you know it: What trope is every assassin movie required to feature? That’s right! It’s the Job Gone Wrong. At least The Gravy Man gets it out of the way early. Six gets dispatched to Bangkok…or Baku…or, ah Hell–somewhere. His target is a fellow Old Spice operative (Callan Mulvey). Six is about to off his target, when the guy drops a bombshell. Students, can anyone tell me what spy cliché is next? Yes! Nothing Is What It Seems. Turns out, Cool Breeze Six has been an unwitting pawn in a shadowy, murderous game of chess.
These machinations start with Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), a fast-climbing bureaucrat within the agency. We learn that Carmichael has been using Six for his own nefarious purposes. Naturally, Six is pissed to be in the middle of such an ugly scheme. He pushes back against his superiors, and becomes the next spy trope. Anybody? Yes! The Man on the Run. Gosh, you guys are so smart! Carmichael puts a John Wick-sized contract on Six, forcing him to go deep underground.
As you can also guess, Carmichael’s not going to leave such an important task solely in the hands of a bunch of grubby mercenaries. He taps Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to lead this massive manhunt. Brawny, charming, and utterly psychotic, Hansen is both the best and worst man for the job. His silky arrogance makes instant enemies at the agency, but he’s also not bound by their ethical constraints. Hansen is an off-the-books kinda guy, and he makes giddy use of his license to kill.
Now, we’re about due for another cliché. What’s that in the back? Yes–we’re missing our female lead! She’s Dani (Ana de Armas), Six’s partner in the film’s initial hit job. Carmichael is suspicious that Dani knows more about Six then she lets on, resulting in her suspension from duty. This exile makes Dani and Six natural allies, and they team up to suss out the truth. Female leads in these movies are either the Good Girl Gone Bad, or the Bad Girl Gone Good. I’ll let you figure out what category Dani falls into.
I’d say I don’t want to give more away, but let’s be honest: If I hand you a pen and paper, you can probably write the rest of this movie yourself. Over the course of 130 minutes, we don’t get one single, solitary surprise. Not one.
And that’s surprising, given that Gray Man was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, and co-written with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Yup, this is the squad who elevated the MCU into a cultural juggernaut, spearheading everything from Captain America: The Winter Soldier to Avengers: Endgame. That landmark stretch of superhero epics brimmed with swagger and panache, but you’d never know it from the generic, exhausted staging of this film. With its machine-gun editing, incoherent action, and pounding soundtrack, this film could’ve been directed by–son of a bitch, it hurts to type this–Michael Bay.
In spite of its many deficits, Gray Man scores big with its lead actors. As always, Gosling is a hybrid of brooding hunk and relatable dude–like he could go Jason Bourne on a train station’s worth of Euro-sleaze, or grill burgers and brats while wearing an apron that reads, “Nice to meet you, Hungry. I’m Dad!” Six is a pretty dull protagonist, but Gosling still provides the film with an emotional anchor. As rickety as this screenwriting is, that’s no small feat. On the flip side, Evans has a ball playing a villain so deranged he makes Hannibal Lecter look like Ward Cleaver. The film actually comes alive when Lloyd is onscreen.
I like both actors, and I really wanted to like the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, all I can pay it are backhanded compliments: It doesn’t blow as bad as other films I’ve seen lately. Some of the action scenes are, you know, pretty okay. But I can’t recommend a movie by damning it with faint praise. For all the talent and money present on both sides of the camera, The Gray Man should’ve been a much better experience.
129 min. R. Netflix.