The Gray Man is in theaters on July 15, 2022, and will stream on Netflix on July 22.
With an all-star cast led by Ryan Gosling as a CIA hitman on the run, The Gray Man builds itself using the spare parts and superficial flourishes of much better action films. It’s a serviceable impression directed by Joe & Anthony Russo, who, along with co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, were responsible for a huge chunk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (most recently, Avengers: Endgame). But where the MCU is often criticized for its lack of discernible style, The Gray Man is a product of too many conflicting approaches with no unifying vision — not unlike their previous effort, the Tom Holland-fronted Cherry — resulting in a spy movie mish-mash that takes far too long to be enjoyable.
Based on the novel series by Mark Greaney (a frequent collaborator of the late Tom Clancy), The Gray Man is Netflix’s latest shot at a first installment in a hopeful franchise (see also: The Old Guard). The streaming giant reportedly cut the Russos a mammoth check of $200 million, but this investment is rarely reflected by the film’s flimsy, textureless appearance that makes exotic locations feel cheap, and complicated fight scenes seem hastily strung together. At its center is a tale where nearly every character feels cut whole-cloth from a spy movie parody, speaking in broad espionage terminology alone, and rarely exhibiting an ounce of humanity. There is perhaps one major exception — or an attempt at such — in the form of Chris Evans’ suave, sociopathic private sector hitman Lloyd Hansen, who chases Gosling’s character, codenamed Sierra Six, across much of the 129-minute runtime. But Evans’ role ends up too blinkered in its adherence to “type,” and too singular in its attempts to project tongue-in-cheek villainy, to leave a lasting impression.
A brief prologue set in 2003 depicts Six’s recruitment from a jail cell by agency operative Donald “Fitz” Fitzroy (a de-aged Billy Bob Thornton), before the film skips forward 18 years, with Six caught in the middle of a Bangkok hit where things don’t feel quite right. Assisted by field agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas, in a less layered version of her role in No Time To Die), and questionably ruthless instructions by ruthless his new boss, the young hot-shot Denny Carmichael (Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page), Six does things his own way and creates a ruckus at a flashy nightclub, leading to a barely comprehensible fist-fight with his target, which ends with him acquiring secret data that threatens the Agency’s operations.
What follows takes its cues from Skyfall, the Bourne Trilogy, a few Missions: Impossible, and even John Wick, but it never manages to create a character or action sequence as memorable as any of its inspirations. Gosling, while he spearheads the film’s quippy, self-effacing dialog — oh yes, The Gray Man is particularly Marvel-esque in this regard — is largely left adrift by a script that doesn’t so much as give Six a discernible personality trait, let alone a real objective beyond surviving militarized attack number X, before making his way to Asian or European location number Y in anticipation of the next big sequence. Attempts are made to give him something of a heart, by introducing the complication of Fitz’s kidnapped niece (Julia Butters) — whose history with Six is revealed through a lengthy and awkwardly structured flashback that stops the movie dead; The Gray Man loves its time jumps! — but Six isn’t so much a person as he is an amalgam of cinematic ideas, none of which are given the requisite breathing room. The title is explained as a reference to his morality, but the film’s moral dimensions are so swiftly smoothed over as to be completely moot.
The majority of the cast is similarly shackled by the edit’s need to zip from scene to scene without a lasting human moment. De Armas isn’t so much doe-eyed as she is a deer in the headlights; she’s a more than capable actress, but she struggles here to so much as spin a questioning glance from the story’s abyss. Even poor Jessica Henwick, who plays Carmichael’s second in command, is saddled only with occasional objections and observations about Hansen’s destructive methods, in order to give the film the appearance of conscience or dilemma — the CIA needs to assassinate people the “right” way, quietly and legally; how brave — until The Gray Man recalls that Henwick may be useful in some potential sequel, granting her a last-second usefulness that only serves to rob tension from existing scenes.
Evans’ Hansen is touted as a sociopath, but he’s less intimidating than Dear Evan Hansen; perhaps Evans is too straightforward a performer, or perhaps there was little provided by the writers and directors for him to tap into, with regards to the character’s diabolical villainy. The contrast between his vicious M.O. and his loafers and designer casual-wear comes off as aggressively plain rather than intriguing, given the broad nothingness of his demeanor. What’s more, the film actually features a superior example of this archetype, albeit briefly, in the form of a character called “Lone Wolf,” one of the many John Wick-esque assassins set loose by Hansen in his contracted pursuit of Six. Lone Wolf is played by Indian actor Dhanush, a superstar in Tamil cinema, and while he only features in a handful of scenes (and his only recognizable trait is a vaguely orientalist idea of “honor”), his combination of patterned suit and graceful movements during his fight scenes captures the kind of harmonious clash between cruelty and style the film so desperately wants from Evans.
Speaking of style, The Gray Man makes it crystal clear that the Russos’ copy-paste visual approach is unworkable. Their Bourne-esque quick cuts for hand-to-hand combat lack visceral impact. Their occasional riffing on John Wick’s gun-fu provides occasional clarity, but even in their most legible medium and wide shots, there’s no sense of composition to draw the eye, and little by way of lighting and color to accentuate mood (comparing the film’s title to its muddy color grading would almost be too easy). The brothers even add drone shots to their repertoire, but seemingly at random. Where Michael Bay’s Ambulance used drones to turn a chase into a four-dimensional roller coaster, the Russos simply deploy the technology for the occasional establishing shot, or as connective tissue when they can’t figure out how to move from one part of a fight scene to another.
Eventually, The Gray Man morphs into a watchable, mid-2000s thriller — the kind you’d rent on DVD because the cover featured crosshairs, redacted documents, and maybe a wilting American flag — but by the time it gets there, so much breath is wasted on creating non-characters that its last-minute attempts at emotional intimacy have no legs left to stand on. It’s a movie about nothing and no one in particular, and it isn’t even pretty to look at.
Netflix Spotlight: July 2022