There’s a moment in The Gray Man when an assassin, instructed to kill a sleeping Ryan Gosling, favours a knife instead of a gun because they’re on a plane. Naturally, anyone who watches movies knows that a) a gun will inevitably make an appearance and b) a hole will be shot in the side of the plane.
The fact that both of these events occur is neither surprising, nor exciting. Of course Gosling’s secret agent winds up battling assassins mid-air as the plane crashes, just as his survival is a forgone conclusion. It’s the expected outcome and not just because we’ve seen action films before, but rather because The Gray Man is so unabashedly familiar.
Stop me if you’re heard this before: a convicted felon (who secretly is a genuinely nice guy) is recruited into a black ops CIA program where he’s given a code name* (Six) and sent on missions to kill bad guys. Years later a random assignment goes haywire, prompting his own agency, now run by a corrupt official, to put a hit out on him. The rest of the film is a series of globe-trotting adventures as Six avoids various hit squads, while also deciphering a MacGuffin necklace and attempting to rescue a kidnapped girl with a pacemaker.
*When asked about the moniker by the girl, Claire (Julia Fitzroy), Six quips: “007 was already taken.”
It’s not that The Gray Man is bad; it’s just incredibly formulaic. This is a film that is content to replicate all of the standard tropes without any interest in subverting them, which means no unexpected moments or surprises. It’s a paint by numbers Netflix action film, complete with bloated 2 hour+ runtime, needlessly convoluted narrative and game A-listers (besides Gosling, the stacked cast includes Chris Evans, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfre Woodard, Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas). This doesn’t mean that the Joe and Anthony Russo brothers-directed film doesn’t have its charms, but it’s hard to shake off the feeling that The Gray Man isn’t trying very hard.
The boilerplate narrative was always going to be an issue considering the screenplay, co-written by the Russo brothers as well as Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is an adaptation of a novel by frequent Tom Clancy collaborator Mark Graeney. The spy on the run narrative, combined with swaths of disposable assassin teams, is standard action movie fodder, but it’s a shame how content The Gray Man is to misuse its talented cast.
Take Gosling’s Six, who is little more than your standard mono-syllabic killer with a heart of gold cliche. There’s nothing memorable or compelling about the character, particularly when the film hits pause on the present day action for an extended flashback to unpack his completely unsurprising history with Claire. The fact that Gosling’s charm is wasted on such a stiff suit is a sin, though it does render Evans’ performance as Lloyd Hansen, an uninhibited sociopathic gun for hire with a penchant for tight 60s collared shirts and a “trash stache,” all the more enjoyable.
Aside from Evans – and possibly de Armas – no one in the cast appears to be having any fun with their paper thin stock characters. This is particularly true of Regé-Jean Page as the villainous Denny Carmichael, who is hilariously non-threatening and utterly boring as the film’s corporate Big Bad. He fares better than Jessica Henwick, though; as Suzanne, Denny’s shrill and exasperated number two, Henwick is saddled with both the film’s worst dialogue and the worst character motivation, which is truly saying something.
This might all be forgivable if the action were spectacular, but it varies widely from set piece to set piece. The stand-out is an all-out gunfight in Prague when Six is handcuffed to a park bench as Lloyd’s teams descend en masse. This moves into a streetcar vs convertible vs armoured car chase of utterly ridiculous proportions, but the fantastical scope and destruction porn is welcome by that stage in the film. Still, despite how entertaining the sequence is, the Russos frequently fail to establish a sense of geography, particularly in the first half at the square, so it becomes impossible to determine who is where at various points in the fight.
It’s shockingly amateurish at times, and yet that’s far from the worst set piece of the film. That honour goes to the aforementioned plane crash sequence, which is a calamity of bad CGI and incomprehensible spatial geography. It plays like a cut scene from a bad video game and is so bad that it borders on unwatchable.
Despite all of this, The Gray Man feels on-brand for Netflix. The film overstays its welcome and fails to bring much new to the table, but it’s leagues better than recent disasters like Red Notice or Spiderhead. There’s enough action and A-list talent here to entertain audiences looking for a way to waste a Friday night on the couch or seek a reprieve from a Sunday afternoon hangover.
As a potential action franchise for Gosling and the Russo brothers, it could be better, but if audiences go in with expectations held in check, it’s perfectly fine.
The Gray Man is streaming on Netflix July 15