‘The Gray Man’ Pits Ryan Gosling Against Chris Evans in a slick spy thriller
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo return to action blockbuster filmmaking for the first time since their triumphant ‘Avengers’ movies. But does their new spy pic deliver?
Arriving on Netflix July 22nd, ‘The Gray Man’ represents the return of directors Joe and Anthony Russo’ to the sort of big-scale action entertainment they brought to screens with their Marvel movies, including ‘Avengers: Infinity War’rand ‘Avengers: Endgame’.
Following a detour into character drama with ‘Cherry’ (which wasn’t as well received as their giant MCU entries) and producing other action fare such as ‘Extraction’, they’re back behind the camera, roping in the former Captain America (Chris Evans) to star alongside Ryan Gosling.
Tearing a page from the likes of the ‘Bourne’ and ‘Bond’ stories, ‘The Gray Man’ adapts the novels by Mark Greaney. Here, the directors recruited their old ‘Captain America’ and ‘Avengers’ movie writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to work on the script alongside Joe Russo himself.
‘The Gray Man’ introduces us to Sierra Six (Gosling), plucked from prison years ago by Billy Bob Thornton’s Fitzroy to become the titular “gray” operative, working for the CIA outside the boundaries of the law and using any means necessary. He’s a killer when needed, but while he’s supremely efficient at his job, he’s also conflicted as to the marks left on his soul.
On a mission to take out what his current handlers (including Regé-Jean Page’s Carmichael and Jessica Henwick’s Suzanne Brewer) assure him is a very bad guy, Six stumbles upon a drive holding information about a massive conspiracy.
Soon, he’s on the run for his life, as his bosses really don’t want that information to get out into the world. To stop Six, they hire Lloyd Hansen (Evans), an ethics-free CIA washout who has reinvented himself as a private contractor, willing to do anything for money.
He, in turn, looks to manipulate Six by leaning on (and torturing) Fitzroy and the older man’s niece, Claire (Julia Butters).
With a variety of dangerous thugs hunting him down, Six has his wits and the occasional support of fellow fighter Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) to save his skin and reveal what he’s discovered.
The Russos bring all that they’ve learned working on giant Marvel movies to bear on this one, and it shows – the camera weaves and ducks (drone shots aplenty) into action scenes and the fights are carried off with aplomb and knowing humor. One moment finds de Armas’ Miranda grousing about Six tossing her an empty gun without letting her know, leading to a debate as to whether you should ever throw someone a loaded weapon.
What does feel lacking here are truly developed characters. While you don’t usually come to an action thriller for deep drama, most of the people on display here are ciphers rather than fully developed people (and yes, their MCU entries had several movies in which to flesh out their people, not to mention an extensive comic book background).
The dialogue, too, is also strictly thriller movie standard: characters growl hard-boiled lines about getting “bravo team in here” or lobbing put-downs at each other.
In its central pair, though, they do at least have a couple of powerhouse performers who are clearly having a blast (which also describes several of the set pieces). Gosling is a soulful, darkly charming lead who does at least have a little bit of a backstory with his prison past, though his daddy issue origin story is hardly the freshest idea in the world.
As for Evans, he’s shrugging off the stalwart Steve Rogers to play an even darker, smarmier character than his ‘Knives Out’ role. With a terrible mustache and a massive ego, Hansen is a worthy rival, one who has fun being awful to people. He’s also handed some of the better lines of the movie, including “if you want to make an omelet, you gotta kill some people.”
Everyone else is at least dependable – Butters brings some life to what is otherwise a thankless damsel in distress, while Thornton brings strong paternal figure energy crossed with no-nonsense attitude to Fitzroy.
Despite the flair and the passion on display, though, it all starts to feel a little generic at times, and early on the editing is distractingly swift, the footage sliced apart to such a degree as to give even the likes of Michael Bay nightmares.
Running on rails through its story from one action beat to the next with barely a pause, ‘The Gray Man’ can start to feel like a video game, Six battling against each threat, proving that he can get out of any situation, even when the odds are against him.
There are action cliches aplenty and some sequences that feel like the filmmaking team just wanted to homage or top some of their favorite movies, resulting in a product that sometimes becomes less than the sum of its parts.
Yet there’s no denying the energy of the movie, nor the sheer appeal of two movie stars playing spies. And you’re in no doubt that a lot has been spent to make this one as big as possible – it hops around the globe and featuring the sort of massive set-pieces few other franchises (and make no mistake, this is an attempt to launch a new one) can pull off.
Though ‘The Gray Man’ can’t quite replicate the visceral thrills and emotional impact of, say, ‘Avengers: Endgame’, it certainly manages to deliver on the spectacle. It’s never going to probe the deeper levels of governmental responsibility in an increasingly dangerous world, but that’s not the point here – the movie wants to make you fear for Six and cheer when he survives, say, having to jump out of a plane without a parachute.
Zero wheels are re-invented here, yet the film offers sleek thrills, well-shot stunts and star charisma in abundance.
‘The Gray Man’ receives 4 out of 5 stars.