Producers: Joe Roth, Jeffery Kirschenbaum, Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, Mike Larocca and Chris Castaldi Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo Screenplay: Joe Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely Cast: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Henwick, Wagner Moura, Dhanush, Alfre Woodard, Regé-Jean Page, Julia Butters, Eme Ikwuakor, Cameron Crovetti, Shea Whigham, Callan Mulvey, DeObia Oparei, Robert Kazinsky and Scott Haze Distributor: Netflix
Netflix’s current financial woes might be explained, if not excused, by wasteful spending, which would definitely include budgeting a reported $200 million for this bloated, brain-dead action movie. It was probably thought a wise investment, given Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans as the stars and the directors of no fewer than four huge MCU smashes overseeing things. Maybe it was.
But little of the money appears to have been spent on the script, adapted by co-director Jo Russo and two collaborators from a 2009 novel by Mark Greaney. Their work has resulted in nothing more than a catena of big, noisy set-pieces held together by the flimsiest of plots, with an occasional bit of juvenile banter added to the otherwise pedestrian dialogue. The action is of the globe-trotting sort, with plenty of locations turned into rubble along the way—which naturally raises the question of why so many countries allow their beautiful capitals to be abused so gruesomely in the service of cinematic explosions and car crashes.
Gosling is a young man incarcerated for murder who’s recruited by CIA bigwig Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) as a deep cover operative called Sierra Six. (Don’t worry, he’s still a good guy, his crime explained away in an obligatory confessional scene toward the close with Cameron Crovetti as his younger self and Sean Whigham as his father.)
After some years Fitzroy has left the agency, now controlled by the unscrupulous duo of Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick) and Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page). They assign Six to kill a bad guy at a gaudy party, and though he does so, he learns that the target is Sierra Four (Callan Mulvey) and that the CIA is engaged in eliminating Fitzroy’s entire company; before dying Four entrusts a flash drive to Six listing all the agency’s dirty secrets—the movie’s McGuffin. He is now on the run from the agency. Another outcome of the movie’s first garish set-piece is that Six’s colleague in the operation, Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), is now suspected of helping him and, to save her position, goes in pursuit of him.
But she’s not the most dangerous person on Six’s trail. That would be Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a crazed ex-agent now in the private sector hired by Carmichael to kill him and recover the drive. Six gets help initially from Fitzroy, but that ends when Hansen kidnaps Donald’s niece Claire (Julia Butters), who also suffers from a heart ailment. That means that Six has to save not only his own life but Claire’s and Fitzroy’s as well.
Hansen sends band after band of brutal mercenaries after Six, and Dani inevitably gets involved, as do Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard), an old CIA friend of Six’s, and Laszlo Sosa (Wagner Moura), an expert document forger who proves more greedy than reliable. They all fail to kill him, but do enormous damage in the process of failing. Finally Hansen sends in his ultimate weapon—a solo assassin called Lone Wolf (Dhanush). Which, of course, raises the question: why didn’t he just send him in the first place? Much mayhem could have been avoided, and the movie could have been whittled down to thirty minutes from two-plus hours.
Of course, though Wolf proves as good as his reputation, he’s also a man of principle and decides that Hansen is not a nice person. So the final act in the film is a one-on-one between Six and Hansen, who involves firearms and extensive hand-to-hand combat. And this being 2022, the ending cannot be a complete triumph for the forces of good.
The most interesting thing about the two stars is frankly their choice in face hair: Gosling chooses to go full beard but still is called at one point a Ken Doll (an inside joke, obviously), while Evans opts for a moustache that’s a bit too wide to be referred to as Hitlerian, though that description would certainly fit his characterization. (Like Hitler, too, Hansen proves quite incompetent—toward the close he calls all his dead minions morons, but that’s a category into which he fits.) Gosling does the handsome, suave, infinitely inventive bit perfectly well, even if Six is a pretty colorless superspy by Bondish standards, but Evans, obviously frantic to turn his heroic Captain America persona upside down, sneers and screams so maniacally that he’s a cartoon, and not a very amusing one. The rest of the cast go through the motions decently enough, with Thornton and Woodard doing the expected smoothly, while de Armas is pretty and petulant and Page silkily nefarious.
However silly and repetitive, “The Gray Man” is technically proficient, which it should be considering the presence of the Russos and their crew and that enormous budget. The multiple locations are nicely shot by Stephen F. Windon, even if Jeff Groth’s editing, as usual in such fare, chops up the action sequences into bits and pieces skittishly thrown together, while Dennis Gassner’s production design is adequate if surprisingly unexceptional.
As for Henry Jackman’s score, it’s loud but thoroughly undistinguished. It might be noted that when Vienna is visited, the music used to introduce the city is the “Trish-Trash Polka” by Johann Strauss II. That’s an appropriate choice, if you put the emphasis on the second word of the title as a fit description of this big, bombastic would-be blockbuster.