Post-Avengers, Anthony and Joe Russo have had a rocky list of credits that includes directing the utterly terrible Cherry and producing the best film so far of 2022, Everything Everywhere All At Once. The Gray Man often feels like the two directors are going through the motions as they figure out what to do outside of the MCU. To be fair, their MCU films are among my favorites and while The Gray Man is far better than Cherry, it still is an aggressively bland action film with few distinguishing qualities.
One of the reasons the film fails to have its own style or energy is that is too often reminds you of other films. There is the plot that reminds me of the last three Liam Neeson thrillers, the action that feels like a haphazard mix of John Wick and Daniel Craig-era Bond, and the script that desperately could use punch-ups to dial in the attempts at humor.
Ryan Gosling plays Sierra Six, a mercenary who was recruited out of prison to kill for the CIA. As the film opens, he is in Bangkok assigned to assassinate Sierra Four, a fellow member of this black ops program. As Four is breathing his last breaths, he gives Six a thumb drive and tells him he'll be next. You can already guess that the rest of the film will be spent watching Six escape from baddies while trying to expose those trying to kill him.
The Gray Man has an impressive blockbuster scale to it for a film that is only getting a week in theaters before dropping on Netflix. The sheer amount of lavish locations is enough to anticipate an upcoming price increase on your subscription. You can feel the formulaic approach here that Netflix thrives on, see Red Notice. The algorithm is heavily at play as the film borrows elements from other big-budget action films. Now, I don't need every film to offer a fresh take on the formula. I like a standard action film but it needs to have a distinct style or a witty script, The Gray Man has neither. In fact, its biggest asset is the chemistry between Gosling and Chris Evans but the film curiously keeps them apart for most of the film.
Evans gets to play Lloyd Hanson, a sadistic mercenary with a ridiculous mustache. He brings good energy to the role but the script keeps letting him down. Evans looks like a cartoon villain but never is given the freedom to go big enough to bring some levity to the role. Hanson is hired by Denny Carmichael, played by Bridgerton's Regé-Jean Page. Carmichael is replacing Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thorton) as head of the Sierra program and he's cleaning house. The thumb drive Six has threatens to expose his unscrupulous rise to his current position.
Carmichael first enlists his second-in-command Suzanne (Jessica Henwick) to get the job done but when she fails, he brings in the psychopathic Lloyd. Page made a big impact on Bridgerton but here he is woefully miscast. Most of the time he just throws coffee cups to show how angry he is. Henwick, who stole the entirety of The Matrix Resurrections, is unmemorable here. The script doesn't seem to know who she is or how to make anything about her distinct.
What is a pleasure is seeing Gosling back on the big screen. It has been four years since he made a film and his screen presence is still captivating. It is shame The Gray Man isn't better because action-mode Gosling works. The wide array of action sequences in the film all kind of all plays out the same way with Gosling killing a bunch of henchmen. The film's curious PG-13 rating keeps all this bloodless but the sheer amount of death on-screen should have warranted an R. The Russos bring little of their action chops for the Captain America films here. They keep obscuring the hand-to-hand combat. In one scene on a plane sees Six fighting baddies with smoke grenades, which cover up the fighting. Another scene is lit only by a flashlight Six is holding while fighting, again making the combat impossible to relish. Somewhere in the mix here is Ana de Armas as an agent helping Six. She has proven in No Time To Die that she can be an incredible action star but she is too often pushed aside here.
Gosling is a great choice to play a good-hearted but killer spy. The script gives Six an unneeded backstory with some suppressed family abuse. I would have preferred it left Six a bit more enigmatic as Gosling already brings a lot to the screen. The Gray Man is an okay choice if you are in the mood for action but it is hard to ignore all of the ways this could have been better. The action needed more style, the film needs more Gosling and Evans quipping at each other, and the script needed a few more drafts.