While "The Gray Man" showcases Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, and Regé-Jean Page, this globe-hopping action thriller, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, is more interested in pounding pulses and taking breaths than throbbing hearts. It is a big, noisy, explosive adrenaline rush — a live-action spin on that old "MAD" magazine comic, "Spy vs. Spy" — and about as deep.
The story is simple. Six (Ryan Gosling) is recruited in prison by Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) to be a "gray man" and work for the CIA killing bad guys as part of the Sierra program, an elite unit. During one mission — to take out Dining Car (Callan Mulvey) — Six goes rogue. However, Dining Car reveals he is "Sierra Four" and Six will be targeted next. Four gives Six a medal that contains an encrypted drive with compromising information that incriminates Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), Six's boss, who is high up in Langley.
Denny, who is none too pleased with this unfortunate development, hires independent agent Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to kill Six and get the drive back by any means necessary. For Lloyd, a man who is said to have "zero impulse control," that does not exclude torture or destroying European cities.
And that's pretty much it. Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas, underused) shows up from time to time to kick ass, and there is a subplot involving Fitzroy's niece, Claire (Julia Butters from "Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood") who has a pacemaker. But mostly, the film is one action set piece after another after another.
The action set pieces are pretty nifty, though. One dizzying sequence has Six fighting his way out of a plane that is pretty much coming apart as it goes down. Another episode involves him McGuyvering his way out of a sticky situation best not to be explained, except to say it is pretty ingenious. Then there is a massive shootout while Six is handcuffed to a bench, and an exciting, extended chase scene on a tramline that may be the film's pièce de résistance. These scenes are all executed with panache, as well as rapid-fire editing and a roving camera that adds to their propulsive nature. They are all pretty astonishing.
But as exhilarating — or as exhausting — as "The Gray Man" is, the film strains credibility as Six survives everything he encounters. It is all rather two-dimensional. The confident and righteous Six is Road Runner to cocky and badass Lloyd's Wile E. Coyote. The whole film plays out like a live action Looney Tunes cartoon. The numerous explosive devices from grenades to rocket launchers, might as well be marked "Acme."
Chris Evans as Lloyd Hansen, Jessica Henwick as Suzanne Brewer in "The Gray Man" (Paul Abell/Netflix)One almost wants to root for Wile, er, Lloyd because at least Chris Evans, in his "white pants and trash 'stache" seems to be having fun playing an over-the-top baddie. As Six, Gosling is once again in too-cool-for-school "Drive" mode. The film yields some mild pleasure whenever he gets taken down a peg — as when he acknowledges that Dani Miranda keeps saving his ass. (And for those counting, Gosling also gets one shirtless scene where displays his impressive chest; it is the same number of times he is called a "Ken doll.")
As Carmichael, Regé-Jean Page is as petty as he is pretty. It would have been better for him to be cast as Six, because he could easily deliver on being grace under pressure. Instead, as Carmichael, Page has to sweat out being found out, and that is just not a good look for the "Bridgerton" star.
Each character experiences a series of reversals of fortune, but "The Gray Man" makes it pretty clear how things are going to play out. Sure, there is a terrific scene involving one of Fitzroy's contacts, Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard) helping out, and it features clever, coded spy exchanges like, "Have you tried aluminum siding?"/ "I prefer fiberglass." Another enjoyable bit features Laszlo Sosa (a fabulous Wagner Moura, hamming it up) as an operative who helps Six with a passport among other things.
These episodes are far more interesting than Six's backstory and what he did to land in jail (cue tired father issues); Lloyd torturing someone for information; or even a flabby sequence where Six "babysits" Claire, so they can bond, and her medical condition can tug at heartstrings. There are also multiple, extended needle drops that should juice things up, but don't.
But arguably the biggest flaw is that the film falters when Six and Lloyd finally go mano-a-mano, after a protracted chase through a hedge maze at night, no less. There should be some real electricity seeing Gosling and Evans duke it out in a water fountain, but it is oddly underwhelming — especially after some of the film's superb actions sequences.
"The Gray Man" is now streaming on Netflix.
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