The Gray Man is an action thriller from Anthony and Joe Russo starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Billy Bob Thornton and Ana de Armas. Unfortunately, while the title speaks to the character’s shadowy blend-into-a-crowd ability, it’s more of an indictment on just how indistinguishable the actioner is based on its many influences. It’s as if some of the best elements from the most popular action franchises in recent memory were put through a meat grinder and sculpted into a statue of Nicolas Cage.
The Gray Man’s something borrowed, something blue script finds its sixpence in Six who wears size 11. In Hollywood, it’s not unusual for an anonymous skilled CIA operative to go rogue… what does narrow the playing field is having that self-same agent pursued across the globe by a psychotic colleague and his crew of assassins.
Anthony and Joe Russo are no slouches, responsible for Captain America: Civil War followed by Avengers: Infinity Game, Avengers: Endgame and more recently Cherry. Known for curating big ensemble superhero films for Marvel, they know how to wield sharp casts… doing this to a lesser degree with the stellar line-up in The Gray Man. Starting out with Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me and Dupree, they made a name for themselves as TV comedy series directors before converting all things comic into the pulpy action-adventure of Marvel.
They’ve taken a great deal of this explosive, over-the-top and playful superhero energy into The Gray Man. Dialing back the visual effects to planet earth, this equally colourful action thriller is much more grounded, keeping its action within the realm of possibility. Taking notes from the Daniel Craig Bond era and the Matt Damon led Bourne saga, the filmmakers want their hero to stop just short of supernatural. Choreographing grand action set pieces to match these sleek influences, The Gray Man is clearly wanting to stay around for a while with sequels already announced.
Yet, as exhilarating as the action gets, it’s always served up with style… John Wick style. Much like Keanu Reeves, fellow Canadian Ryan Gosling has shown that his acting can be fairly selective. If being cast as Ken in the forthcoming Barbie movie wasn’t enough of a clue, Gosling’s robotic turn as K in Blade Runner 2049 shows that he tends to perform better in bursts with more seething, stylish and concept-driven elements. The Gray Man borrows much of what makes John Wick such an elegant actioner, offering its own version of “gun ballet” with an equally cold dime-a-dozen approach to henchmen.
“You could say I’m a trained assassin.”
To get the party started, the Russo brothers offer a serving suggestion and give audiences a number of clues about The Gray Man’s tone, tipping the hat to Lord of War and Con Air with a Face/Off level rivalry between Gosling and Evans. The flamboyance, cheesy one-liners and underlying nuttiness scream Nicolas Cage, who would have been a good choice for The Gray Man in his heyday. Coasting on Cage’s renaissance on the back of films like Pig and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it’s as if the filmmakers tried to adapt the actor’s essence into a film.
To understand this slant is to get what The Gray Man is all about. This movie is about blistering action and pure popcorn entertainment. There are a few moments that call for acting but it’s informed by the film’s stoic low-key bravado and magpie appetite for flashiness. Chris Evans sports a trash ‘tache to underscore his nose and the film’s bendy comic lashings, going for outlandish and violent fun over The Professional level artistry. It’s no secret, The Gray Man is all about style and oozing cool over establishing serious dramatic substance.
In a time when cranking it up to overdrive offers a bit of distance from the creeping darkness, it’s actually a welcome bit of escapism. While it levitates at times to the point of being ridiculous, it’s brought back to earth by a dose of hard reality missing from many other action vehicles. As hard to kill as Six is, he takes a real beating, accumulating scrapes, cuts and the odd bullet along the way. It’s refreshing to see him react to pain and not parade about completely invincible – attempting to keep some perspective when in all the visual decadence and swagger.
The Gray Man deserves the biggest screen and best sound you can muster. It really is all about the sound and lights, generating some Nic Cage fun and powwow action through its sparkly cast but not really amounting to much more than a stylish bullet-riddled showdown. It’d probably get more credit if it didn’t have such a rehashed Build-A-Bear feel but does just enough for you to consider watching whatever they serve up in the sequel.
The bottom line: Amusing