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The Gray Man review: Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans go to war

The Russo brothers round up a killer cast for an otherwise milquetoast Netflix conspiracy thriller.

Ryan Gosling in The Gray Man.
(Image: © Netflix)

Our Verdict

The Gray Man is a drab action thriller that reflects the colorfulness and excitement of its title, despite Chris Evans giving 110% as a wack job villain.

For

  • Chris Evans loves being bad
  • Dhanush elevates his action scenes
  • Lots of attractive and historical scenery to blow up

Against

  • Shot without personality
  • Camera tricks end up being misses
  • The cast frequently doesn't get the chance to shine
  • Wasted potential everywhere

Anthony and Joe Russo's The Gray Man might be an expensive adaptation of Mark Greaney's novel (opens in new tab), but the filmmakers can't buy enough energy worth the investment. Its star-studded cast of Hollywood A-listers drearily drifts through another tale of confidential agencies, burned agents and global shootouts without much of a fireworks spectacle (even when actual fireworks illuminate the screen).

The Russos reuse Marvel movie stunts and play with drones to capture city landscape transitions while their characters one-dimensionally beat each other senseless like a Jason Bourne cardboard cutout. The Gray Man doesn't deserve the pedigree of its ensemble, nor does it translate beyond massive budgets spent on green screen effects — but at least Chris Evans is having a blast playing chaotically evil.

Ryan Gosling stars as ex-convict Court Gentry, aka "Six," a jailed murderer released to join Donald Fitzroy's (Billy Bob Thornton) CIA Sierra program of elite killers carrying out government contracts. Eventually, ruthless hotshot Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) ousts Fitzroy and Sierra's operatives start turning up dead. Six's involvement in the mystery of dying agents becomes apparent when he comes into possession of an encrypted drive that could expose CIA conspirators and unauthorized missions — so Six definitely must die. Enter sociopathic private mercenary Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), hired to retrieve the missing intel and put Six and Sierra down for good.

The Gray Man is a reference to how Six operates in the "gray," off the grid, or it could be a reference to the film's monotone nature that lacks overall espionage excitement. 

We've witnessed Gosling, Ana de Armas (as Six's accomplice, agent Dani Mirana) and Jessica Henwick (as Lloyd's handler Suzanne Brewer) dazzle on the screen countless times prior, but here they're game pieces moved rigidly across a map, their character models without color or definition. 

Gosling especially doesn't ignite our passion for the film's multinational cat-and-mouse game that travels between Europe, Asia and America, playing exhausted and agitated without the broodingly stoic presence of his Drive performance. We're supposed to chuckle as Six sighs after being shot or limps through severe injuries like a stubbed toe, but the tactical comedy never lands — Gosling's charms are muted and his persona shockingly mishandled, which detrimentally sets the tone for supporting performances.

As mentioned, Evans stands out because Lloyd is the only character allowed to establish any semblance of personality. Evans adores playing bad — he's on par with Knives Out here — as he turns Lloyd Hansen into an exemplary psychopath with a government budget (and hilariously ill-fitting facial hair). Where Gosling's blasé attitude in deathly scenarios falls flatter then flapjacks on a diner floor, Evans is exceptionally hilarious whether shot in the ass (best line read of the film) or menacing violent threats past giddy smiles. The Gray Man doesn't deserve whatever Evans is channeling; his performance is better suited for outrageous action flicks that ruled the 2000s, like Shoot 'Em Up or Smokin' Aces.

The Russos struggle to deliver hard-hitting action scene after scene with strategic (and excessive) editing that blurs on-screen choreography. They seem out of their depth in ambitions, drawing up massive set pieces but with digital effects that look downright ugly. Airborne drone shots as introductions to notable international cities are overused, while a jarring and off-putting portrait mode — for example — blurs swanky Bangkok party scenes behind Six and Dani, removing atmospheric "distractions." We only hear and acknowledge essential characters, which makes sense, yet the visual effect feels awkwardly unnatural (like an Instagram filter). 

And how do we only get a single substantial fight sequence with Indian musician and actor Dhanush as smoother-than-silk hitman Avik San (a second is a cheap quickie)? The one altercation where cinematography doesn't need to hide its actors' hand-to-hand performance and it's a mere blip compared to the movie's overall runtime. Over and over through Netflix's big-budget, mid-execution, low-dynamism thriller, we're reminded how American action movies could learn a few things from overseas examples.

I guess Netflix is a good home for The Gray Man because it's best utilized as background noise during chores. Although, why do that when The Night Comes For Us is also on Netflix? I digress. 

The Russos create nothing exceptional throughout commonplace betrayals, leverage kidnappings and explosive landmark destruction as American special agents shoot missiles into foreign architecture. On the other hand, Chris Evans is exceptional as an unhinged professional cleaner who loves snacking and exercises his license to kill without hesitation — he's the best part of any scene, whether involved or not. 

It's still not enough to recommend The Gray Man because the rest is tragically lackluster, but Evans almost single-handedly squeaked out three stars for this otherwise sedate battle of endless ammunition and witless protection.

The Gray Man is now playing in select movie theaters. It premieres on Netflix on July 22.

Matt Donato
Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for such outlets as What To Watch, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria, Shudder, Ebert Voices, and countless other publications. He is a member of the Hollywood Critics Association and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.