The title of Mark Greaney’s novel The Gray Man (first in a bestselling series) refers to a quality that is as desirable for a spy as it is difficult to find in contemporary movies about their exploits: the ability to move through the world without being noticed, so unremarkable that those you interact with forget you as soon as you’re out of the room.
That ethic barely makes it into Joe and Anthony Russo’s stylish, supersized Netflix adaptation, whose hero (Ryan Gosling) wears attention-grabbing clothes and attracts the kind of mayhem that shuts entire cities down (not to mention being so handsome that the spooks in a John le Carré operation would never let him out in the field.) A side character expounds on the value of blending in, but even he wears one-in-a-million facial hair and lives in a building designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an artist who made Gaudí look tame. While the movie itself may prove nearly as unmemorable as its hero ostensibly wants to be, it’s anything but inconspicuous.
The Gray Man
The Bottom Line
An overstuffed spy tale partly redeemed by its leads.
Gosling plays Court Gentry, who was in prison for murder when the C.I.A.’s Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) recruited him as a black-ops assassin. Now he’s Sierra Six, the last working member of Fitzroy’s Dirty Dozen-style Sierra crew. The first time we see him in action, we may marvel at the fact that he has made it this far. His assignment, one of the most ridiculously contrived in the history of hitman flicks, involves using a rifle the size of a jackhammer to shoot up through the ceiling at a man two floors above him — a target who just seconds ago was walking around in the open. When a child arrives on the scene, Six aborts the mission and kills the guy the old-fashioned way.
But while he’s still breathing, the victim reveals that he’s a former Sierra man himself, targeted because he has a flash drive with evidence proving that the Agency’s Group Chief Denny Carmichael (Bridgerton‘s Regé-Jean Page) is killing people around the world for his own shadowy purposes. Knowing Six now has the drive, Carmichael paints him as a rogue and sends all his spies off to kill him.
Enter Chris Evans, star of the Russos’ best films (the Captain America trilogy) and their most bloated (Avengers: Endgame). Appearing to have lots of fun playing against type, Evans is Lloyd Hansen, a psychopath so amoral even the CIA fired him; now he’s a megarich freelancer Carmichael calls as a last resort. Working out of a French castle set on 19,000 acres, he’s a torture-happy ham with an infinite budget and no scruples.
The Evans/Russo pairing isn’t the only reunion here. Gosling’s Blade Runner 2049 costar Ana de Armas joins him as Dani Miranda, an agent whose career is jeopardized by all this, who decides to help Six despite her doubts. The actors’ chemistry from that film doesn’t carry over here, but Miranda does at least get to save Six enough times to make him feel inadequate. The part is more prominent than de Armas’ action-hero turn in No Time to Die, but the Bond role had more personality.
Speaking of Bond: Gray Man certainly wants to compete with him and Ethan Hunt in terms of globe-trotting action, novel locations and wild set pieces; it’s a very expensive ambition that doesn’t always pay off. A sequence in which Six gets stuck on a cargo plane that is falling apart as he fends off killers, for instance, can’t approach the bonkers thrill of similar action in Roseanne Liang’s pulpy Shadow in the Cloud; a very long gunfight in Prague’s Old Town, with an endless supply of assassins somehow failing to kill our guy, feels like a John Wick castoff.
Occasionally, a grace note will upstage all the explosions and bloodshed around it — the unexpected use of a reflection to kill a hidden attacker, for instance. But the screenplay’s clever moments are often predictable, like a loudly telegraphed bit of business involving a character’s pacemaker.
That character (Fitzroy’s niece, kidnapped by Hansen) is played by Julia Butters, of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Though the Tarantino film gave her a more credible precocious-kid role, a child’s presence here is valuable, and not just because trying to rescue her makes Six look noble. Rather, a scene in which he quietly protects her is one of the film’s few bits of human-scale violence, in which Gosling (making a welcome big-screen comeback four years after First Man) can show the calm-but-deadly stuff this man is made of. (A later hand-to-hand fight sequence, featuring the Indian multihyphenate Dhanush, is similarly valuable, though it ends very implausibly.)
Predictably, the film is most fun when Gosling and Evans engage directly or via intermediaries. It gets less appealing when we’re in command centers, watching intelligence officers try to cover their asses. Alfre Woodard shines in her short time onscreen as Fitzroy’s old ally. But Page and Jessica Henwick, who both have plenty of screen time (Henwick plays Carmichael’s deputy), struggle with thinly written characters and rote power plays.
Working with longtime collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Joe Russo has dramatically changed the action of the book; as with the Jack Reacher adaptation starring Tom Cruise, the author’s many fans may not recognize what they see here. So it’s smart that, while early reports (and showbiz logic) suggested this will be the first of many Gray Man outings, the movie’s action does little to set that expectation. Letting this be a standalone adventure may be artistically wise. And with all the belt-tightening and revenue-seeking going on at Netflix, saying no to a crazy-expensive sequel might not even offend the artists involved.