The genre of espionage films has a bit of a vacuum at the moment; Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One will not release for another year, the Jason Bourne series is dormant, James Bond is gearing up for another reboot, no one knows when Atomic Blonde will get a sequel and Amazon seems to have a monopoly with their Reacher and Jack Ryan series. However, the directing duo of Anthony and Joe Russo, in an attempt to prove they can do more than direct MCU films, have entered the arena with The Gray Man with the intention of starting a new franchise but this attempt may be more of a dead drop.
Led by an all-star cast including Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick and Regé-Jean Page, The Gray Man focuses on CIA operative “Sierra Six” as he becomes a target of the agency after he acquires incriminating evidence of his higher ups operating as a shadow government. Gosling brings his trademark even keeled quality to his performance of Six and manages to stand out from his CIA colleagues as he operates with a moral compass. Contrasting Gosling and playing against type is Chris Evans and his character of Lloyd Hansen, a psychopath with sadistic tendencies who lasted less than six months in the agency. Evans certainly does a good impression of a sadistic, talkative, psychopath but it’s difficult to imagine Captain America as a hardcore villain. It should serve as a reminder that Evans’ best work as a “villain” was 2019’s Knives Out. In spite of its cast, The Gray Man offers little in terms of character development with most of it being directed towards Gosling and some leftovers given to Jessica Henwick. It is a gross misuse of a cast that also includes Julia Butters, Alfre Woodward and Billy Bob Thornton.
Like all modern espionage thrillers, The Gray Man has action but there is a staggering amount of action in the film. There are over a half dozen different action set pieces which makes a James Bond film look like an episode of Mythbusters. In this instance, quantity does not mean quality. The large amount of action scenes help to move the film’s plot along but in the end, only serve to exhaust audiences. To have this many in a film that is roughly 120 minutes long means an action scene every 14 to 15 minutes and leaves for very little time to actually move the story along with exposition or include any character development. It is surprising given how the Russo Brothers have crafted some of the best action sequences for the MCU to create scenes for this film that are little more than purely chaotic.
There is also the issue of borrowing. Now, every film borrows or has borrowed from other films and will continue to do so until the end of time but The Gray Man found a way to not just borrow but commit straight theft from films in the Bourne series, several prologues from James Bond films, many moments from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and several Mission: Impossible films. Given the creative power behind the film, someone should have noticed this and spoke up in an effort to try and limit the action scenes or inject something new to the espionage genre. It is clear that Netflix is hoping to craft a rival franchise to James Bond but those creators have the benefit of 60 years in the business and have found ways to be innovative after generations of actors, writers and directors.
While there is no question of The Gray Man’s tone as serious, it is as serious as a heart attack at a funeral. There is little in the way of humor or romance. Most of the humor comes from the sarcastic quipping of Julia Butters’ character but we are constantly reminded that she has a pacemaker and vulnerable to loud noises or attacks. Even the most serious of espionage offers some moments to lighten the mood; James Bond has his one liners and romantic conquest, Tom Cruise is solidly charming in the Mission: Impossible films but Ryan Gosling is all about the mission and allows little to distract himself. If a sequel is to proceed forward, hopefully a romantic reunion is in the cards for Gosling and Ana de Armas as they hare a simmering onscreen chemistry.
The Gray Man promised action and it certainly delivered on that but the action scenes are merely a crutch for poor screenwriting and the all-star cast goes misused for the entire runtime. The Gray Man is best left in the dark as it fails to rise above the countless spy films it sought to emulate.
VERDICT: 2 gold pendants out of 5