There’s a moment in The Gray Man, the new movie from Avengers: Endgame directors Anthony and Joe Russo, in which hell is breaking loose outside a building in Prague (it’s hard to keep track of all the globetrotting in this movie). The building is blowing up; there are heavily armed assassins and local security forces shooting each other to pieces in the square outside; and soon a city tram is hurtling off its tracks and crashing through more vehicles while demolishing a whole city block.
All I could think was: Wouldn’t this rise to the level of an international incident? Yet for the film’s main character, played stoically by Ryan Gosling, and the person helping him, played with as much verve as can be mustered by Ana de Armas, it’s just an excuse to dust themselves off and head to the next set piece.
That’s how generic and hermetically sealed a movie The Gray Man is. With a reported cost of $200 million, it’s the most expensive film produced by Netflix to date, and the film—loosely based on the first of a series of novels by author Mark Greaney—certainly looks like all the money is up there on the screen. This is a big, slick, professionally produced spectacle that rapidly flies by and has enough onscreen movement to keep pulling your eyes to the screen in that “Netflix in the background” kind of way.
But the plot machinations and character development—courtesy of Joe Russo and screenwriting duo Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely, who did far better work on all four of the Russos’ Marvel movies—are about as stock as they come, and the movie can’t shake the overall familiarity of its plot. Eventually you realize, this is all style over substance, with little to say about its subject or characters.
Gosling is the “Gray Man” of the title, a fellow named Court Gentry who was sprung from prison where he was serving time for murdering his dad until CIA handler Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) got him out and gave a job as a clandestine assassin due to his specialized skill set. Eighteen years later, and now going under the code name “Sierra Six,” Gentry sets out on a routine assignment but flubs it due to a child being near the target. He then learns that his target was once “Sierra Four,” also an assassin for the CIA. Agency bigwig Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page of Bridgerton fame) wants him dead because he knows too much about Carmichael’s evil, secret agenda.
Now that Gentry has this knowledge, and the MacGuffin that contains it, he becomes Carmichael’s next target. The latter taps psychopathic mercenary-for-hire Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to do whatever it takes and kill whoever he must to put Gentry down. Going on the run with only the liaison for his last mission (de Armas) helping him, Gentry must expose Carmichael, outwit Hansen, and rescue the only people he cares about before it’s too late.
Rogue agents, double-crossing bosses, a gleefully lunatic killer recruited only for those very special missions: it’s all here, along with a steady stream of shootouts, explosions, brutal fistfights, and continuous chases designed to make you forget that the characters are thinner than wet tissue paper and that the twists and turns of the plot add up to very little in the end. While Gosling’s character is given a token motivation late in the movie to explain some of his actions, and the actor is physically impressive in the role, he also plays Gentry so cool that he’s almost comatose at times. Gosling is watchable enough to make it work, and you’re mildly rooting for him to win, but he feels like a blank slate a lot of the time, and the one-liners (this script is full of them) just sort of fall out of his mouth and hang in the air.
Thornton adds his natural eccentricity to his role and gets to do a little more with his character, but almost everyone else suffers by comparison. De Armas and Jessica Henwick portray tough, no-nonsense agents, but they literally have no lives other than their roles as enablers/helpers to Gosling and Page, respectively. Page is the typically irredeemable evil CIA suit, slick and soulless and one-dimensional to a fault. Acclaimed Indian actor Dhanush shows up as a freelance mercenary hired by Hansen, but despite his charisma and action chops his role is mostly superfluous.
Evans is the only real wild card. In what is clearly his biggest attempt yet to play an anti-Captain America, Evans cackles and smirks maniacally at every turn; you can practically see him forcing himself to not twirl his porn-star mustache, which should get its own star billing. He’s pretty much acting in his own movie, fast with the jokes even as he’s yanking someone’s fingernails out during one torture scene. But his Hansen is ultimately cartoonish, undercutting any real dread he might generate.
That’s really the final analysis on The Gray Man: there’s little generation of dread, tension, suspense, emotion, humor, or even engagement. The movie’s beats are so familiar, the characters so cookie cutter, the action sequences and fights so by-the-numbers (if occasionally fun) that the movie undercuts itself. Even the around-the-world settings don’t make much of an impact because the movie flies in and out of them so fast. Seriously, this is one of those movies where everyone can get anywhere in the world in five minutes.
The Russos clearly know how to put a huge film together and just as clearly hope to start a new franchise with The Gray Man (unless Marvel comes calling with Secret Wars, of course). But aside from its scope, a few striking action moments, and the overall quality of the cast, this is like a Battleworld of spy thrillers, with pieces of it cut and pasted from other properties.
“007 was taken,” Gosling’s Six quips at one point when asked about his numerical designation. It’s the movie’s idea of self-awareness. But even at his worst, James Bond is an infinitely more interesting, fun, and colorful secret agent to watch.
The Gray Man begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, July 22.