The Gray Man review: Limp thriller will be on Netflix’s homepage today and instantly forgotten tomorrow
Dir: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Julia Butters, Dhanush. 15, 120 minutes.
Why have all of Anthony and Joe Russo’s post-Marvel movies felt so apologetic? Their work on two of the Captain America films, plus Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, helped shape a franchise so culturally pervasive that it’s become near-impossible to separate Robert Downey Jr from Iron Man or Chris Hemsworth from Thor. It seems the directors now feel like they owe their actors some kind of escape plan – an out from all that spandex-lined baggage. Did watching Tom Holland in their 2021 film Cherry, where he played a PTSD-afflicted, drug addict veteran, shake off our association with Spider-Man? Not really, but the attempt was made. And what about Chris Evans, our former Captain America, sporting a cop moustache and a murderous temper in The Gray Man? Nope!
He plays Lloyd Hansen, a CIA mercenary sent to annihilate his own colleague, Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling), after the latter gets hold of the wrong piece of information at the wrong time. Hansen sucks on lollipops, yells at his minions for not keeping their phones on silent while he’s mid-torture session, and busts out little quips like, “don’t say preternatural, it’s an asshole world”. We know he’s meant to be unhinged because of how often people talk about how unhinged he is. It’s sociopathy as a quirk. A costume. An over-laboured wink and nod to the audience that we’ve never seen Captain America quite like this. We have, though. Evans did the same bratty shtick to much greater effect under the acute direction of Rian Johnson in 2019’s Knives Out. Even pre-Marvel, he’d already nailed the role of a weapons-grade douche, back in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
The Gray Man, then, feels like a sweatily desperate attempt to prove a point that was never in any doubt. As a result, it comes off as oddly limp and airless, one of Netflix’s $200m action films (à la Red Notice) that will be on their landing page today and instantly forgotten tomorrow. Its quips have been transplanted wholesale – with a few added “f***s” – from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When Gentry explains that he’s nicknamed Six because “007 was taken”, it plays like a sheepish admittance of how much The Gray Man has been cobbled together from other sources.
Billy Bob Thornton’s Donald Fitzroy tracks down Gentry in prison and offers to commute his sentence, as long as he agrees to be trained up by the CIA and turned into a killer for hire. Once he’s gone rogue, Hansen is mobilised and the chase begins, as these characters traipse around every single international city that, I would presume, offers tax breaks for film productions: Bangkok, Vienna, Berlin, Prague.
Everywhere looks so slick and empty that it’s impossible to differentiate any scene from your standard luxury hotel ad. The hollowness of green screen gives way to the lightest nod to John Wick’s trademark gun-fu, while the Russos deploy far too many frenetic, swooping drone shots, as if The Gray Man were their thesis on how movement means excitement (it does not). The film, at one point, randomly tosses in a “lone wolf and cub” narrative by saddling Gentry with Fitzroy’s granddaughter (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Julia Butters). She’s been given a random emotional attachment to a Crosley vinyl player purely so that, in one action scene, she can put on Mark Lindsay’s “Silver Bird”. Meanwhile, the women of The Gray Man – Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick and Alfre Woodard – get to fret about how these reckless boys and their big guns might ruin their own reputations.
Regé-Jean Page, as CIA boss Denny Carmichael, feels like he’s been offered the same package deal as Evans: look stern in some glasses, start yelling in an office bathroom and smack a hand towel dispenser a few times, and everyone will forget you were ever The Duke in Bridgerton. Again, working this concertedly against the grain doesn’t quite work.
The film also shoots itself in the foot by pitting Evans and Page against someone like Gosling – an actor who’s always been so naturally and thrillingly erratic on screen that he only needs to lift a single eyebrow for his character to feel like a real danger. The same can be said of Tamil cinema superstar Dhanush, who turns up near the backend of the film in a sharply tailored suit. He radiates such irrepressible confidence that, when he walks back out of frame, you sort of hope he’d take the entire film with him. The Gray Man really needed a little more of that unstudied cool.
‘The Gray Man’ is in select cinemas from 15 July, and can be streamed on Netflix from 22 July