‘The Gray Man’: Ryan Gosling Chases Clichés in Russo Brothers Action Spectacle

Movies like Netflix’s “The Gray Man” should bring some comfort to struggling filmmakers despairing over not having access to massive budgets. Here is an expensive, globe-trotting thriller by the directors of “Avengers: Endgame” that mercifully clocks in at 2 hours and 9 minutes, yet delivers nothing new. Undoubtedly many Netflix subscribers will click on the image of Ryan Gosling doing his tough guy pose, promising a fresh round of car chases and shootouts. They will definitely get a good dose of crashing vehicles mixed with pristine sound. Like many of the streamer’s pricey explosion fests, all of the thought gets put into scale. What gets left behind is a story that can sustain itself when the movie quiets down.

The plot kicks off as one of those recognizable yarns where a criminal with super skills gets recruited by what we assume is the CIA. Going by the numerical code name of Six (Gosling), our hero is tasked by his boss, Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), with infiltrating a big party in Bangkok and taking out a target. The target in question turns out to be another agent holding a small flash drive containing extremely sensitive, compromising information. Who it would compromise is apparently Carmichael. Six decides to go underground but of course while his angry superiors decide to send a super assassin, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to kill the errant spy. Also involved in all the globe-trotting intrigue is fellow spy Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) and Six’s mentor Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). Hansen is so psychotically determined to kill Six that to lure him out, he kidnaps Fitzroy’s orphaned granddaughter, Claire (Julia Butters). He does this after offering multiple mercenaries around the world millions if they can get Six first. What is Six to do?

“The Gray Man” is the latest, odd directorial choice from Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, the two blockbuster brothers who gained major prominence via Marvel by directing several big titles including the last two “Avengers” behemoths. Arthouse types may scoff, but at least those movies had coherent stories with some thought put into them, along with romantic gestures and grand, thrilling plots. Now giving access to as much budget as they want in the streamers, the Russos keep aiming small while spending big. This is their latest after 2021’s “Cherry” over at Apple TV which was a clunky movie about an Iraq war veteran scored to ‘70s music. “The Gray Man” is certainly very well-made in the literal sense. The Russos know how to frame great shots like the early Bangkok party, where Gosling prowls the room in a red suit with fireworks illuminating the night sky. Scenes involving pure chatter are meticulously framed and the action scenes have style, even if they feel mundane. 

So the issue here isn’t the technical aspects, which are stellar, or the soundtrack which features some strong songs like the Black Keys’ “Wild Child.” The problem is in the story, because there just isn’t one. The screenplay is nearly incomprehensible in terms of what’s going on. This is most likely because the directors assume we don’t care about why things happen, only that they do so with loud bangs. A strange imbalance of tone can also be confusing. Is this an action comedy or a straight-faced thriller being unintentionally funny? Everyone is a predictable cartoon, starting with Gosling’s Six, who of course can charge into a veterinarian’s office and treat his own gunshot wound with puppy mouthwash. Chris Evans’s Hansen doesn’t even look dangerous and more like a Beverly Hills trust fund kid, overplaying the villainy while everyone around him act so sleepily. Evans in particularly is also given some hilariously bad lines he knocks out with a straight face, like whipping out a butterfly knife and snarling, “let’s see if these moves fuck!”

Good silly action movies bask in the joy of cinema and over-the-top exuberance, like Michael Bay’s recent “Ambulance” or last year’s “F9.” Here the Russos film the premise with such a bland spirit that the movie feels overly long at 2 hours and 9 minutes, while their “Avengers: Endgame” is nearly twice as long and feels exciting from beginning to end. “The Gray Man” belongs to what should be called the action blender genre, meaning that it’s a blender of every basic action plot point. It begins with a criminal turned spy, who of course has a dark past due to a crime he is innocent of, then transitions to his former handlers becoming a threat, then it transitions to him having to protect a kid, and culminates in facing off the equally-skilled psycho sent to get him. These elements can all be done well in a stronger action piece. Here we’re moving from point A to B without any heart. Some sequences have popcorn charm, like Six fighting off a brigade of assassins while staying handcuffed to a bench. The rest are by the numbers fist fights, knifings and all revolving around a flash drive we don’t care for, because by the third act we’ve forgotten what’s even in it. 

Everyone looks great in this movie, as expected. Ana de Armas proved in last year’s “No Time to Die” she’s right at home in a skillful action film. Gosling detours far from his best work in movies like “Drive,” but he always brings some sarcasm to these roles. Billy Bob Thornton, the man who once made “Sling Blade,” phones in another one of these roles for veteran actors in a spy flick. It’s a good lineup in another Netflix throwaway. Sometimes the studio has made a few guilty pleasures along these lines, like Jamie Foxx’s now forgotten superhero romp “Project Power.” Yet somehow two directors who have defined blockbuster genre filmmaking recently can’t get a firm grip on this caper. Admire the craft in the way expensive shots can be designed, but other than that, “The Gray Man” another chase around the block of thrillers recycling each other.“

The Gray Man” begins streaming July 22 on Netflix.