The Gray Man leans into the more is more philosophy of action moviemaking. Directed and written by the team behind two Captain America movies and two Avengers movies, it certainly doesn’t reach the heights of those flicks. Not because it doesn’t have comic book superheroes but because the characters here are cardboard cut-outs for “good guy” and “bad guy”. This works as a decent action movie throwback with some amusing quips and moments that pop. It even has a one-on-one good guy versus bad guy final brutal climax that has sustained action movies from the 80s onwards. The Gray Man is not a deep flick but it is a slick one, even if it isn’t as slick as it thinks it is.
Operative Serra Six (Ryan Gosling) does black-ops work for the CIA under the command of the nefarious Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page). When an op goes sideways, Six ends up in possession of a secret hard-drive with things on it that really ticks off Carmichael. So Carmichael recruits an independent contractor, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), to get it back and sends in agent Suzanne (Jessica Henwick) to oversee Lloyd. Lloyd decides that by squeezing Six’s former boss and the guy who recruited Six out of jail, Donald (Billy Bob Thornton), it will get Six to cough up the drive. Additional pressure is supplied by Lloyd kidnapping Donald’s niece, Claire (Julia Butters), a young girl who Six had to previously protect. Now Six hits the road with a CIA agent Dani (Ana de Armas) to get them back.
Gosling’s Six is a standard cliché action hero cipher. His tragic backstory involving an abusive dad isn’t exactly interesting either. The fact that his hero doesn’t have a name, only a number, is unoriginal, although there is an amusingly self-aware joke when he says that “007 was taken”. He has a few good sarcastic lines thrown out amid the chaos. Gosling does make for a convincing good action hero inasmuch that he moves smoothly. As Gosling often stars in anti-action hero movies like Drive, so seeing him in genuine action hero mode is interesting. Even if the part is rather bland on paper he makes many bits lively.
Doing a complete 180 from when he was working with Anthony and Joe Russo on Captain America and The Avengers, Evans’ Lloyd is a completely irredeemable toolbag of a baddie and the movie is way more enjoyable because of it. Rocking a trash stash that Six calls him out on it’s almost a parody of an action hero villain but so over the top it is kind of hilarious. He’s seeking a thrill even in the messy job of information extraction; if a victim of his torture isn’t entertaining he calls them “boring”. Or when Six unexpectedly drops a live grenade in between them to escape he approvingly says, “Ballsy.” He’s grinning at his evil the whole time which is strangely endearing.
Lloyd is certainly a more compelling villain than the supposed mastermind behind the whole thing, Page’s shady Carmichael. He sits in an office, makes loud statements about how Six has to be caught no matter the cost and isn’t anywhere near as enjoyably evil as Lloyd is. If the filmmakers are setting up Carmichael as the big bad of the series he needs to get more interesting, fast. Henwick is mostly an expository sidekick and she has a few moments of fun exasperation at the chaos Lloyd is causing. Armas is the other expository sidekick who talks about Six’s backstory and kind of just looks cool during action bits. As Six’s former boss, Thornton’s Donald ends up being kidnap bait although he gets in a good torture scene with Evans’ Lloyd. Even more kidnap bait is Butters’ who comes complete with a tragic heart condition. There’s a brief flashback to Six protecting her to basically make her the young charge who the grizzled veteran can give a damn about.
The action is definitely slick and moves fast. It is more like the action in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, very frantic and visceral. At one point the bad guy goons show up with body armour and wearing skull facemasks basically like Crossbones from Civil War. The film delivers spectacle, like an opening fight in a nightclub, or when Six ends up handcuffed to a bench and still fights away the bad guys, much to Lloyd’s amusing exasperation. There is a free fall from a plane that seems like something cut from a Marvel movie although it makes slightly less sense here as Six has no superpowers. The final showdown between Six and Lloyd is a mano-a-mano brawl that is like the action movie fisticuffs that closed out many 80s or 90s action movies. There are some decent back and forth quips throughout Gray Man but considering it is written by Avengers writers who managed to exert serious emotional pathos in those final two films, it’s baffling how dull the character stuff is here.
At a reported 200 million dollars, The Gray Man is one of Netflix’s bigger budget action spectacles. The best stuff is Evans as a complete jerk and the gunfire keeps coming. It never quite stops trying to impress so even if bits are cliché, it is entertaining.
The Gray Man
Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Wagner Moura, Julia Butters, Dhanush, Alfre Woodard and Billy Bob Thornton