Obviously intended as a franchise starter along the lines of Bond, Bourne, or Hunt, The Gray Man – an unoriginal and ultimately forgettable adaptation of Mark Greaney’s 2009 bestselling spy novel – will likely end with a single, underwhelming entry, background fodder for game nights, post-prandial chilling, or boredom-related inertia. Maybe given the combination of formulaic, checklist-oriented filmmaking, slumming A-list actors, and the built-in limitations of a hefty $200M production budget, The Gray Man was always destined to disappoint, but it certainly didn’t need to do so to the point of disrespecting audiences with such an expensive and time-wasting result.
What we do know, however, is that we’ve seen practically every single element, every genre trope, and every action beat before, often in significantly better, similarly themed films. Opening with an overly familiar scene involving the title character (Ryan Gosling), identified here by the code name Sierra Six, on the seek-and-kill mission that will inevitably go sideways, leaving a trail of broken bodies and a fair bit of conspicuous destruction behind. In breaking protocol, Six becoming a wanted man, chased across various parts of Central and Eastern Europe by civilian contractors led by Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a sadistic ex-CIA operative turned well-dressed, moustache-twirling villain in the employ of a rogue spy agency and a duplicitous senior officer, Denny Carmichael (Regé Jean Page), and second-in-command, Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick).
It’s enough to give any casual viewer a permanent sense of deja vu, but to Gosling and Evans’ individual and collective credit, they certainly give their all. In Gosling’s case, “all” means turning in another stoic, taciturn, physically oriented performance. For Evans, “all” means the exact opposite, gleefully chewing scenery when and wherever he gets a chance. Sadly though, Gosling and Evans meet exactly twice, once near the mid-point and again at the climax. Before and between those meetings, Evans sends waves of faceless, disposable henchmen after Gosling’s character, a typically efficient killing machine who occasionally gets bloodied, bruised, and battered, but makes a swift, near effortless recovery each and every time.
While Six goes on an extended run, leaving a wake of destruction behind him to signal he’s been there and gone already, several other characters of varying significance enter the film, including Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), a CIA field agent who becomes embroiled in Six’s quest for truth, justice, and the American way; Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), Six’s retired ex-handler; and in probably the most egregiously manipulative move in the entire film, Claire (Julia Butters), Fitzroy’s niece. It’s not enough that the screenplay, credited to Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely (plus an uncredited phalanx of script doctors), sets up Claire as an unfortunate orphan with only the disreputable, morally and ethically dubious Fitzroy as family; she’s also saddled with a heart ailment that requires a pacemaker. Cue pulling of heartstrings whenever a frail, fragile Claire makes an appearance.
With an underwritten, lackluster script, one-dimensional characters, and barely functional dialogue, there’s one and only one reason to see The Gray Man: a series of expensively mounted set-pieces elevated by Gosling’s willingness to throw Oscar-level effort into his physical performance, stellar production design, and near brilliant cinematography by Stephen F. Windon (The Fate of the Furious, Furious 7, Star Trek Beyond). As usual, though, editing often crosses over from kinetic to chaotic, though the action remains mostly coherent and relatively easy to follow. One or two scenes, however, are undermined, sometimes badly, by sludgy, undercooked visual effects. One sequence, for example, partially set on light rail falters for exactly this reason.
Still, where the unoriginal story and cardboard characters fail to engage, the lengthy, well-choreographed set pieces deliver their fair share of surface thrills and occasional chills. It’s unfortunate, though, that so little effort went into developing a screenplay from source material that badly needed, at a minimum, several more passes or a different set of screenwriters to add something, anything beyond what audiences and viewers have seen and experienced countless times before.
The Gray Man opens theatrically on Friday, July 15th. It’ll begin streaming on Netflix on Friday, July 22nd.