Of all the films Anthony and Joe Russo have directed together, their Marvel entries are the only with an overall positive critic consensus per Rotten Tomatoes. The Gray Man had the chance to break that streak. Adapted from the novel of the same name, the film is a grounded spy thriller following a fabled, rogue mercenary, Six (Ryan Gosling), as he is ruthlessly pursued around the world by a sociopathic CIA contractee, Lloyd (Chris Evans). If the premise alone is enough to hook you, to compel you, to say “yes, I want to see two action-packed hours of Chris Evans wanting to skin Ryan Gosling to stroke his own ego,” then you will like this movie. If you ask for anything else from the film, it will let you down.
It is almost unkind to interact with The Gray Man as if it were a story. The film is not concerned with ideas, and it is certainly not concerned with its characters. There’s an old screenwriting plot device called “save the cat”. To signal to the audience that the main character is an admirable person worth siding with early in the film, have them “save a cat”, i.e. do something morally good. In The Gray Man, Six refuses to kill a child. And for the rest of the film, the goodness of any character is determined by whether they are willing to be complicit in the murder of a child. There is no other significant measure of morality. There is no nuance. In a cast of murders ruthlessly killing each other, there is no true introspection, only the shadows of a point. Six has a relationship with the child, which is the only emotional grounding for the film.
There is no point to The Gray Man. Compared to the Russos’ filmography, it’s most similar to The Winter Soldier in premise and execution, a spy thriller about the corruption of a government organization and how that reflects on the main character’s faith in his country as he must reassess what doing the right thing means. The Gray Man has no such ideas. There’s a handful of bad CIA agents and they’re bad because they’re bad people who do bad things. They have no real motives. They are not real characters. Six is almost a passive force in the film, single-minded and static. Lloyd is set up as Six’s foil, and he hurts people because he gets off on the power trip. That is his character. That’s his motivation. He’s just bad. The film pretends that Lloyd’s brutal nature highlights the capacity of Six to care for others, but in reality, it’s the amateur skeleton of a story executed with childish simplicity.
Simplicity is not inherently a detriment to a film. In some cases, it can enhance a narrative by stripping bare an idea to its purest form. The Gray Man is shallow. Any emotional elements are there because they need to be there, because movies need a B plot. Cut any human elements from the narrative and nothing will change but the audience’s patience.
If anything holds the film together, it’s the charisma of the actors. Ryan Gosling plays Six with a familiar reservedness and does well with the subtle humor of the script. The now-popular emotionally stunted killer and curious child dynamic works because it has always worked and will continue to work. It’s a reliable crutch for the film to support itself with, if not a lazy one. Evans plays Lloyd as a spoiled child given a license to kill. Insufferable, but at least it’s clear that everyone is having fun, even if the film isn’t.
By far, the worst part of The Gray Man is its dialogue. Abysmal. It is so cliched, cookie cutter, so lifeless, that it comes across as parody. Watching talented actors from Gosling to Henwick deliver the dialogue in this film is almost like watching an unfunny SNL skit without pauses for audience laughter. It’s difficult to tell if certain moments of this film are meant to be serious or not. If this were a theatrical experience, at least the audience feedback could sway the viewing experience one way or another, but the truth is that this film will mainly be consumed on Netflix among very little company, highlighting the writing’s lackluster quality.
While every other aspect of The Gray Man is underwhelming, the most care is dedicated to its action scenes. They are frequent and they are grand. Most importantly, they are creative. Each sequence is distinct and fascinating to watch. The Russo brothers are very good at building tension and raising stakes. Even if nothing else makes sense, they have the audience where they want them– stressed. Most of the time, the action sequences are shot competently. Sometimes, the Russos will try a distinctive camera technique or framing. Often it’s more to flex spectacle than to enhance the scene, but at least it’s interesting and not distracting. Given the 200 million dollar budget of The Gray Man, it delivers on its promise for big, engaging action.
For some, there is comfort in cliches. There is comfort in simplicity. Many grew up with action films that existed solely as a medium for action sequences, and this return to form is nostalgic. Or, for new action fans, this film will introduce them to new worlds of excitement and spectacle. Releasing a spectacle film on streaming is an uphill battle, but The Gray Man’s presence is large enough to hold its own on any device. For those who find it easy to be satisfied, you will be satisfied. Otherwise, The Gray Man is a disappointment.