“The Gray Man,” a new shoot ‘em up starring Ryan Gosling, and now streaming on Netflix after a quick trip to theatres, overwhelms the senses with an underwhelming story.
The story begins in 2003 with convicted murderer Court Gentry (Gosling) accepting a job offer from a CIA operative named Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) to live in the “gray zone” in return for a commuted sentence. He will be part of the top-secret Sierra program, trained to be a “ghost,” live in the margins and assassinate people who need killing. He’ll be the kind of guy you send in when you can’t send anyone else in. “Take all the pain that got you here,” says Fitzroy. “Turn it around, and make it useful.”
Cut to 18 years later. Gentry, now known simply as Six, because “077 was taken,” he deadpans, is on assignment in Bangkok. On the orders of CIA honcho Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), he’s there to assassinate an asset and retrieve an encrypted drive. When Six refuses to pull the trigger because there is a child in the way—he’s not all bad!—things quickly spiral out of control.
With the help of CIA agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), Six gets the disc, but in doing so, becomes a target himself. Turns out the disc contains info proof of unsanctioned bombings and assassinations ordered by Carmichael, in his bid to turn the CIA into his own personal army. Carmichael wants the disc destroyed and to eliminate any traces of the only people skilled enough to expose him, the Sierra program.
But how do you kill the CIA’s most deadly assassin? You hire morally compromised, independent contractor Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to “put a Grade A hit” on Six. To lure Six into his web, Lloyd kidnaps the closest thing Six has to family, Fitzroy and his young niece (Julia Butters). “You want to make an omelet, you got to kill some people,” says Lloyd.
“The Gray Man” is a big-budget, globe-trotting adventure that makes up in exotic locations and gunplay what it lacks in intrigue and interesting characters. Filtered through the endlessly restless camera of Anthony and Joe Russo, the movie has all the elements normally associated with high end action movies. Fists fly. At times it is a bullet ballet. Things explode. There are tough guy one liners (“Are you OK?” Miranda asks after one city-block destroying action sequence. “My ego is a little bruised,” Six snorts), double-dealing and death around every corner.
So why isn’t it more exciting?
The story is fairly simple. It’s the kind of super killer on-the-run flick we’ve seen before in everything from “John Wick” and “Nobody,” to almost any Jason Statham movie, but it isn’t the simplicity or familiarity that sinks “The Gray Man.” It’s the overkill. And I don’t just mean the unusually high body count. It’s the more-is-more, Michael Bay by way of the “Bourne” franchise approach that overwhelms. The story is constantly on the move, jumping from country to country, from time frame to time frame, never pausing long enough to allow us to get to know or care about the characters.
Six is meant to be an enigma, and while Gosling can convincingly pull off the action and deliver a line, he’s basically unknowable; a stoic man with a number for a name. His relationship with Fitzroy’s niece gives him some humanity, but he remains a dour presence in the centre of the film.
At least Evans, as the “trash ‘stached” sociopath, appears to be having a good time. Nobody else does. That could be because there are so many characters, most of which are underused or underdeveloped. No amount of fancy camerawork could make Carmichael interesting. As the big bad meanie at the heart of all the trouble, he’s a pantomime character with only one gear.
More interesting are Indian superstar Dhanush playing a killer who values honour over cash, in his striking debut in a Hollywood film, and de Armas, who does what she can with an underwritten part.
“The Gray Man” is big, loud, popcorn summer entertainment that spends much time setting itself up for a sequel, time that would have been better spent creating suspense.