Overloaded, overwrought, and overwhelming, The Gray Man movie is the kind of set-piece-oriented, cliché action spectacle that used to be Hollywood’s bread and butter but has become so rare it’s almost alien when placed before us.
Wallowing in light characters and an unbelievable plot as much its star charisma and some wildly over-the-top action sequences, the Russo Brothers’ (Avengers: Endgame) return to big-budget studio filmmaking avoids introspection (of both its content and its process) like the plague.
On its surface, it’s nothing we haven’t gladly imbibed from the Luc Besson school over the years, but in the age of the modern blockbuster, The Gray Man is a little past its sell-by date.
The bones of the Russos’ Marvel-era collaborations with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are clear in Gray Man‘s twisty plot of bureaucratic tyranny and rampant corruption that only a lone hero is willing to stand against (based on the popular novel series by Mark Greaney).
Some vague, technological MacGuffin has the smirking, arrogant head of the CIA (Bridgerton‘s Regé-Jean Page) scrambling to destroy all evidence of wrongdoing and willing to do whatever it takes to destroy whomever he must do so.
The difference this time around is the ‘hero,’ replacing a stalwart defender of good with Ryan Gosling‘s Sierra Six, a convicted murderer freed from prison by the CIA to become one of their nameless, faceless assassins who will do their dirty work with no questions asked. In Gosling’s hands, he’s a brooding, acerbic shadow whose background is sparingly parsed out over flashbacks and occasional breaks between action beats, but primarily exists to destroy villains and quip over their ruined forms.
Captain America’s physical form is here but transformed into the over-the-top villain this kind of thing seems to require, allowing Chris Evans to gnash his teeth and chew scenery while wearing a ridiculous mustache and loafers.
This has been good enough for James Bond for decades, and Gosling’s natural screen charisma helps tremendously, but it also becomes quickly evident that a quiet killer (even if he has a heart of gold) is not going to keep a paint-by-numbers plot together without more than just star power.
And to its credit, it does have more than that. The Russos have clearly taken the opportunity to return to ‘real world’ action as a challenge to up the ante at every turn in their set pieces. Opening with an incandescent Bangkok nighttime chase and knife fight amid fireworks and managing to squeeze in a running gun battle on top of a train and a dizzying airplane crash, The Gray Man movie, away from its roots and characters, is lively, vibrant action filled with visual wit.
It’s when the action stops that the clay feet start showing again.
Attempting to inject both some humanity and stakes, a lengthy flashback introduces perpetually sick and innocent Claire (Julia Butters), the teenage niece of Six’s mentor, who quickly becomes the bargaining chip for him to give himself up and focus on his roaring rampage of revenge.
It’s no more hackneyed than anything else about Six, but it does add up to a world without any seeming awareness of how well trodden its story is or no particular care about.
Maybe it’s the source material. There’s a long and storied history between pulp novels and easily-consumed studio entertainment. From James Bond and Matt Helm to Die Hard and Jack Reacher, it used to be that the blatantly silly premises and paper-thin characters were part of the charm, or at least didn’t inhibit the enjoyment of the villains getting theirs.
Maybe the Russos thought if they could add enough pizzaz, the foundational weaknesses wouldn’t be as evident. It’s not boring, but it’s not exactly fun either, which is the most damning thing that can be said about it.
Maybe this kind of internal fight against corrupt institutions doesn’t work without a bastion of truth leading the way. Maybe it’s something we just can’t put our finger on.
Or maybe we’ve all just outgrown it. I kind of doubt it, or that this will be the last piece of expensive pulp trash to get served up out of Hollywood. I certainly hope not.
THE GRAY MAN MOVIE REVIEW SCORE: 6.5 OUT OF 10
The Gray Man movie will open in select theaters on Friday, July 15, and will be available to stream on Netflix on Friday, July 22. The film is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of strong violence and strong language.
Joshua Starnes has been writing about film and the entertainment industry since 2004 and served as the President of the Houston Film Critics Society from 2012 to 2019. In 2015, he became a co-owner/publisher of Red 5 Comics and, in 2018, wrote the series “Kulipari: Dreamwalker” for Netflix. In between, he continues his lifelong quest to find THE perfect tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich combination.