Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, and Ana de Armas co-star in a rote, routine action-thriller
With A-list stars Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, and (arguably A-list ) Ana de Armas, the multi-billion dollar grossing duo of Anthony and Joe Russo (Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) sharing directing duties, a $200 million budget—reportedly the highest in Netflix history—and a globe-trotting, city-hopping storyline, expectations were sufficiently high for The Gray Man. Given the track record of the Russo brothers, producers assumed they would deliver the next great action franchise by bringing the first novel in Mark Greaney’s spy series to the big screen. Unfortunately, those expectations were far too high, and the proposed Gray Man franchise seems poised to begin and end with a single underwhelming entry.
After an unnecessary expository prologue, The Gray Man centers on the title character, identified as Sierra Six (Gosling), a Bourne-like member of a secret CIA agency black-ops team, recruited from life in prison without parole to do the things (e.g., off-book murders) that will keep the red, white, and blue safe from harm. Sent to Bangkok to take out a black market profiteer, Six suffers an unexpected pang of conscience when the target surrounds himself with innocent civilians, including children. That’s enough to send off-site team leader Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) into a visible paroxysm of rage.
For Carmichael, a little collateral damage is a small price to pay to keep America safe and, more importantly, to keep vital government secrets from ending up in the wrong hands. Six’s temporary field partner, Dani Miranda (de Armas), initially backs his play, but before long, Six makes the split-second decision to uncover the truth behind the target’s last words, leaving him with only his ex-handler Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) as a potential ally. In response, Carmichael sends a small army of mostly faceless mercenaries led by Lloyd Hansen (Evans), an ex-CIA operative, full-time sociopath, and all-around sadist, to track and eliminate Six with extreme prejudice.
If that’s not enough (and it isn’t), the screenplay credited to Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely—though a phalanx of well-paid, uncredited script doctors also helped—throws Fitzroy’s sickly, orphaned niece Claire (Julia Butters) into the mix. Claire’s presence in The Gray Man is meant to soften or humanize the taciturn, stoic Six. A man of fewer words and even fewer facial expressions, Six represents a familiar genre convention: the ruthlessly efficient killing machine with a soft spot for children and small animals. Here, though, the screenplay does little to develop Claire and Six’s relationship beyond a heart-tugging flashback where Six proves his bona fides as the best bodyguard government money can buy.
Along the way, Hansen talks and talks, quipping his way through one torture scene after another. With a high-and-tight haircut, a closely trimmed mustache, and ankle-exposing slacks, Hansen won’t be confused with anything approaching a real-world analogue, but it’s also just as obvious that Evans relishes playing an outsize villain instead of the straight-arrow superhero he’s played time and time again as Captain America. It’s surprising, then, that The Gray Man puts Six and Hansen in the same frame only twice, once at the mid-point and again at the climax.
A better thought-out film would have leveraged the contrast between Six and Hansen. It also would have put them in more than just two scenes together. A better thought-out film would have likely jettisoned the Claire/Six storyline and elevated Dani to co-equal status. That film, though, exists only in an alternate universe. What’s left onscreen is an unwieldy, clumsy mess, fitfully leaping from elaborately choreographed set pieces to expository dramatic scenes, some more cringe- and/or groan-inducing than others. The inevitable extended climax then leads to a too long, logic-defying, self-indulgent denouement.
It’s all the more unfortunate and disappointing that Gosling, one of cinema’s most magnetic, charismatic presences, gets little to do dramatically and is practically wasted in the role. To be fair, Gosling handles the physical demands of the performance without breaking anything approaching a noticeable sweat as he goes through action hero poses. Evans does too, though his physicality isn’t exploited nearly as much or as well as it should be. His Hansen does talk up a good game, though.
The Gray Man opens theatrically on Friday, July 15th, and streams on Netflix on Friday, July 22nd.