The Gray Man is fine. I wish I could say something more enthusiastic about this movie, or even just be more emphatic about it. I would have loved nothing more to be sucked into this world of espionage, backstabbing and intrigue. I wish I could get swept up in the action, or by its characters. The thing is, it’s just kind of fine. It’s a fairly bog-standard spy action film, and never becomes anything more. That’s not to say it isn’t watchable, but rather just a bit too typical to be anything more than another entry into Netflix’s catalogue of content. It’s run of the mill, simple and mostly just serviceable fluff, good to pass the time, but not much else there to really take note of.
Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) is an assassin for the CIA, a former prisoner who had his sentence commuted to become an asset for the government under a program run by Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). After a changing of hands in management, Fitzroy moves into retirement as Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) and Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick) take charge, with a plan in mind. When Six discovers his latest mission, along with CIA Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), was to assassinate Sierra Four (Callan Mulvey), who has a drive of information on Carmichael, Six goes on the run to uncover the conspiracy he’s caught up in. However, it becomes more complicated when Fitz’s niece, Claire (Julia Butters) is kidnapped by the former CIA agent and mercenary that Carmichael has employed to track down Six and the drive, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), leading to a cat and mouse chase across Europe to uncover the secrets of the drive and save Fitz and Claire.
The script feels very typical. Written by Joe Russo, alongside Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame’s Christopher Markus Stephen Mcfeely, the script is all pretty straightforward and uncomplicated, almost pointedly. There’s nothing really going on here of any complexity or that you can’t find otherwise in a Bourne or Bond film, showing an understanding of the genre, but firmly sitting on the backbone of the genre tropes. Structurally, it’s got almost a video game structure to it. While not based on a video game (it is based off a book by Mark Greaney), it has the same structural sensibilities of a general, typical linear action game. A series of set pieces threaded together with a fairly thin plot (though not necessarily from lack of trying). That isn’t to say that is wholly a negative thing, nor is it exactly a positive. There are plenty of films that are able to thread the needle of a rather consistently propulsive action film that is packed to the brim with set pieces, films that don’t need to have a super substantial plot to work, where the action and emotion sit as the primary focus and stun in that regard. The Gray Man doesn’t quite nail this, the emotionality is rather flimsy and lacklustre, the film tries to get you to care about the characters, but there’s not really enough character in them to care about, only bolstered by the fact that this is a fairly excellent cast. There are enough contrivances in the plot to be noticeable, but nothing majorly breaking the film, resulting in something that is serviceable if not particularly deep.
As for the action, well, it’s a mixed bag. Almost every action scene is shot very murkily, whether it is through the haze of smoke or dust, or shrouded in shadow or glare. Mixed in with a bit of scissor happy editing, it can feel a little too much like the Russo’s are trying to cut around and hide the action. That’s not to say that the action is cut to pieces or unwatchable, just feels noticeable in the way in which it feels like they are trying to hide it, almost like they are self-conscious about the action. With all that being said, it’s mostly solid. There’s fairly entertaining stuff in the action (the guy sitting in my row was having a whale of a time), even if it is a bit typical in its construction. It gets a little repetitive, especially considering that there’s so many set pieces in the film, but every so often there’s a choice made that freshens it up, Six is handcuffed to a concrete bench, Six is trapped in a bulletproof glass prison, among a few other fun moments, but for the most part, the action moves along as expected and the Russo’s don’t really play with it. It comes together to something that isn’t all that interesting, it’s nothing bad, just watchable, and that’s really it.
As previously stated, this whole film is elevated by a dedicated and rather excellent cast. While they don’t get much to play with in terms of the script, they don’t sell out their performances. If there’s anything the Russo’s are good at, it’s directing actors, and boy do they get some really good performances here. Gosling may not get to be charming, but he shows that he can be an action star through and through. Meanwhile, Evans uses his leading man charisma to portray a pure sociopath, and it is glorious, he is the standout of the film. de Armas continues to show she has her movie star chops up to scratch, delivering a fun action star performance that is only diminished in the shadow of her 15-minute stint in No Time to Die. Page and Henwick play authority extremely well, Page is particularly unnerving, Henwick eats up the under-listened-to smarts of the operation. Thornton, as well as Alfre Woodard, bring some great gravitas to the film, especially as the counterpoints to Page and Henwick. And then Butters brings a lot of charm to what could be an annoying character, never not endearing when she’s on screen.
If you remember 2020’s Extraction (which was also produced and written by the Russo Brothers), The Gray Man is kind of, to a degree, a better, more solid form of that. It’s a fairly propulsive action film that doesn’t really make that much of an impact, going through the motions of presenting action, trying to thread it with some emotional plotting, but generally coming out the other side fairly forgettable. It’s not a bad film, but there’s just not a lot in there to really make it of any note, with the action being as typical as it is, and the story being just passable, it lays on the back of the performance, which, while pretty great, are still in service of something fairly generic. It’s not a bad time, but just a generally forgettable one.
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