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The Gray Man review: Relentless action, no charm

Ryan Gosling is on the run in this propulsive but unimaginative and underwritten action film by the Russo brothers

Ryan Gosling in ‘The Gray Man’. Photo via AP

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Some way into Anthony and Joe Russo's The Gray Man, cheery assassin Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) tells a CIA tech guy, “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.” It's not a significant line, but I couldn't dislodge it from my brain. Is the techie’s name Babe? Is Lloyd, sadist and psychopath, a fan of wholesome '90s movies about talking animals? Do the Russos expect viewers to get the reference or just ignore it like all the other nonsensical things uttered in the film?

The last point is, I think, relevant. As the camera tracked towards a former CIA chief in her apartment in Prague, I wondered where I'd heard the song that was playing. A few seconds later it hit me: Christophe’s ‘Aline’, used in the trailer for Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch (2021), and in a diamond commercial starring Ana de Armas. Thoughtful directors use references in a way that means something, that connects the source to the tribute. But ‘Aline’ has no more resonance here than in the diamond commerical; it's just some pretty music. 

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Rescued from a life in prison by CIA man Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), Sierra Six (Gosling) becomes an elite black ops soldier, the kind sent on impossible missions, doesn’t exist on paper, etc. He’s been doing this for 18 years, but we first meet him and Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) on a mission to eliminate Four, a previous Gray Man. Before dying, Four tells Six that his current boss, Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), is crooked and hands him a flash drive with evidence. Soon, Six is on the run, and freelance whackjob Lloyd is brought in by Denny to hunt him down. 

Lloyd kidnaps Fitzroy and his young niece, Claire (Julia Butters), both of whom are like family to Six. Claire is not just a child in peril, she’s an orphan with a heart condition. This is absolutely laying it on too thick, but the Russos had great success pairing a kid with a killing machine in Extraction (2020), and are clearly advocates of repeating what isn’t broken. Even so, having the chirpy ‘Oogum Boogum’ start to play as a distraught Claire looks around the room she's imprisoned in shows that the Russos' commitment to their own emotional bait is thin at best. 

The Gray Man is a tight hour and 55 minutes (15 additional minutes of end credits), with wall-to-wall action. This has the advantage of not making Joe Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely feel obliged to write more than standard action hero grumbling: “very small window to take out a very bad guy”; “he hurts people because that’s who he is”; “make him dead”. But the Russos, with all the resources of Netflix at their disposal, can’t bring to their fights and chases the variety, exhilaration and clarity that a film with this much action demands. Several of these take place in underlit settings, which seems like a bad compromise—either go all out with dramatic lighting and staging, like John Wick Chapter 2’s climactic gun battle, or stage it honestly and visibly, like any random mid-budget East Asian actioner (Dhanush’s otherwise promising fight scene with de Armas and Gosling suffers because of this). Sometimes the camera swerves and somersaults with the action, which feels out of character. There’s a plane-jumping sequence that inexplicably stops during a mid-air tussle—the next scene is Six calling to say he’s alive. 

Six is the kind of quippy action hero more associated with the other Ryan. Gosling is hamstrung by an eight-dollar haircut (Lloyd’s description) and a serial killer beard. His job is to brood and batter, but the actor’s natural inclination towards silliness comes through in the series of groans he lets out through the course of the film whenever he’s hit or winded or bouncing off some hard surface. Only Harrison Ford gets more comic mileage out of the sounds of physical exertion. Evans as Lloyd is more casting than performance—nasty fun at times but only because it's Captain America pulling fingernails.

The most unattractive fight I’ve seen in ages takes place in the half light of the morning. You can see the Russos thinking “Magic hour!”, but it doesn’t look ethereal, just drab and murky. Gosling and Evans keep whaling away at each other, the former in special ops black, the latter looking like a football referee. Both are wearing watches, for some reason. “Let’s see if these moves fuck,” the psycho says, pulling out a knife. They do not. 

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