The espionage term “gray man” denotes characteristics adopted by the ideal covert operator: being unobtrusive and, more importantly, easily forgettable. Despite its vibrant, kinetic cinematography, Netflix’s most recent action blockbuster “The Gray Man” takes this inconspicuous phrase a little too seriously.
Adapted from Mark Greaney’s novel of the same name, “The Gray Man” follows Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling), a convicted murderer recruited by handler Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) to join the CIA’s clandestine “Sierra” program. Flash forward 18 years, Six — now the CIA’s most skilled (and fatigued) operative — uncovers the agency’s corrupt underbelly during an assasination mission gone awry. Perceived by his superiors to be a liability, Six is consequently hunted by supremely suave yet sociopathic contract killer Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans). What ensues in a globetrotting, high-octane game of cat and mouse.
During the film’s opening action scene, Six is unable to furtively take out a high-priority target without harming civilians, and must engage in hand-to-hand combat. In the midst of gratuitous CGI fireworks, neon spotlights and frenzied camerawork, Six’s maneuvers, intended to go unnoticed by the target, are equally muddled to the audience. This clamorous struggle sets the tone for the overstimulated fight sequences that litter the next two hours — an unpromising sign for a film whose entertainment factor is predominantly predicated on the quality of its action.
Directed by Marvel titans Joe and Anthony Russo, “The Gray Man” embraces a bombastic, maximalist ethos, consistently sacrificing visceral visuals and sharp choreography for stylized excess. From home invasions to high-speed car chases, thrilling confrontations dissipate into a distracting haze of beaming lights and smoke bombs, further dissected by hectic camera cuts.
The standout moment of conflict involves a stripped-down battle between CIA agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), mercenary “Lone Wolf” (Dhanush) and a potentially hazardous power cable. But even this scene cannot effuse enough electricity to compensate for the better half of the film’s uninspired action shots.
As “The Gray Man” tramples down the well-worn path already established by the likes of James Bond and Jason Bourne, it also stumbles on formulaic potholes. The film overlooks potential plotlines, such as fleshing out Agent Miranda’s amorphous background or probing Hansen’s villainously volatile motives. In lieu of character development, cliches are copied and pasted straight from the page of a spy thriller textbook — an abducted niece (Julia Butters), a crooked bureaucratic agency, a flash drive containing incriminating intelligence.
The predictable monotony produced by these tired tropes is only inflamed by an overabundance of colorless one-liners and unmoving threats. When asked by adversarial Hansen what makes him sad, Thornton returns, “Your small hands?” as if it’s the wisecrack of the century. “If you like breathing, you might want to fix this,” browbeats CIA director Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) to a colleague with all the intimidation of a tree branch. The list goes on.
To be sure, “The Gray Man” boasts a handful of well-delivered witticisms. “007 was taken,” Six quips dryly in response to a remark about his unconventional moniker. However, these rare moments are overshadowed by gratingly stale dialogue, unable to be refined even with a reported $200 million budget (notably tied with “Red Notice” for the most expensive film made by Netflix).
Undeniably, the film’s saving grace is the screen time devoted to dynamic duo Gosling and Evans, who exchange verbal and physical blows with a deftness at odds with the unwieldy, lackluster script. Gosling dons a reserved yet grounded persona not unlike his roles in 2011’s “Drive” and 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049.” Meanwhile, Evans, sporting a “trash stache,” knitted polo and diabolical grin, balances bloodlust and snide rejoinders with panache — Gosling’s unhinged counterpart through and through.
Although “The Gray Man” by no means breaks the espionage thriller mold, particularly striking performances prevent it from plunging altogether into tedium. Still, the film colors a little too derivatively inside the lines, failing to achieve anything beyond murky mediocrity.