One of the sad truths of the entertainment world is that the bigger a star you become, the more likely you are to be lured into dumb vehicles that are in some ways, or in all ways, beneath you. Maybe that’s how Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans, two of Hollywood’s most appealing actors, can end up in a showy but hollow movie like The Gray Man, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo and adapted from Mark Greaney’s novel, a picture that tries desperately to be an over-the-top Mission: Impossible adventure only to end up in a no-man’s land of inconsequence. It’s entertaining only in the most plodding sense. You could really cast almost anyone in this thing. When the characters played by Gosling and Evans—the first a dubious hero, the other an obvious villain—encounter each other for the first time, Gosling says, “I immediately don’t like you,” to which Evans responds, “Looks like we’re on the same page.” With repartee like that, who needs movie stars? You may as well have two pieces of meat talking to one another.
Gosling plays a skilled operative known only as Six, the last remaining member of Sierra, a group of black-ops assassins put together by understated CIA smarty Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). Early on, we see Six prowling through a riotous party in Bangkok, dressed in a slinky red suit. He’s there to kill some bad guy, who turns out to be perhaps not so bad after all. And from there, Six becomes embroiled in another mission, that of bringing down a corrupt agency honcho, Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page, of Bridgerton), a man with secrets he’ll do anything to protect. To that end, Carmichael hires cocky psychopathic freelancer Lloyd Hansen (Evans), a sadist so sick even his onetime employer, the CIA, kicked him out. Lloyd favors tight white pants and soft suede loafers worn without socks. He also sports a cartoonish sprout of facial hair which Six at one point refers to as a “trash ‘stache.” In The Gray Man, the quips just keep on coming.
Because he’ll stop at nothing, Lloyd kidnaps the person Fitzroy loves most in the world, his niece, Claire (played by Julia Butters, the marvelous young actress who sparred with Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood). Claire happens to have a heart condition, as well as an attendant pacemaker, which will figure prominently and conveniently in the plot. Ana de Armas drifts through the film in the thankless role of a CIA agent who steps in now and then have to save Six’s bacon. The action jumps listlessly from Bangkok to Langley, Va., to Vienna to Prague without giving much of a sense of any of those places. There’s plenty of generic gunplay and anonymous but fiery explosions, as well as a sequence in which a character’s fingernails are pulled out (off-camera, but still) with pliers and dropped onto a plate in all their miniature, bloody glory.
Joe and Anthony Russo are the guys behind one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, Avengers: Endgame. But financial success doesn’t equate to thoughtful filmmaking. (The Captain America movies they made with Evans, The Winter Soldier and Civil War, are much better films than either Endgame or its immediate predecessor, Avengers: Infinity War.) The Gray Man—reportedly Netflix’s most expensive movie to date and likely the start of a new franchise—has a costly, opulent look that adds up to nothing, leaving you feeling not so much dazzled as pummeled. And in the movie’s climax, when Six and Lloyd finally square off in a bout of hand-to-hand combat accompanied by much grunting and groaning, they practically smelt into one fleshy, undistinguished blob. Though both are pumped up to cartoonish proportions, they barely work as eye candy. Their personalities have been subsumed by their showy bodies; there’s nothing witty or charming or even dashingly diabolical about either of them. The Gray Man inadvertently pulls off a mission you’d think would be impossible: rendering its stars nearly invisible, or at least just people you can’t wait to get away from.
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