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The Gray Man Is Gray Genre Product
Surely we can have better action movies than this.
The Gray Man is well-titled; this is an anonymous, by-the-numbers spy movie, with studiously bland features that make it almost impossible to pick out of a line-up.
There are a number of entertaining acting turns, and it’s less unremittingly unpleasant than the pointlessly macho and imperialist Extraction, the Russo Brothers last cash-grab genre exercise. Beyond that, there’s not much to be said for it.
If you like watching things blow up while Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, and Chris Evans do stuff in the foreground, you’ll probably enjoy this. If you want even slightly more from a film, you should probably try something else.
Come for the Chris Evans, Stay for the Chris Evans
As you’d expect, there’s a lot of plot and fury, though it doesn’t signify much. Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) a gruff-talking CIA muckety-muck, recruits a prisoner who is code-named Six (Ryan Gosling) to be a super-secret dirty-work assassin.
That’s the intro. The movie proper starts some 18 years later, after Fitzroy has retired. His successor Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) orders Six to kill a man who turns out to be another of Fitzroy’s recruits. The man gives Six a necklace/McGuffin, which Six decides to investigate. Carmichael hires Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a psychopathic wet ops contractor to get Six and the necklace back.
Cue lots of car chases, gun battles, and carnage.
Gosling is perfectly acceptable as a standard-issue insouciant hard-guy with a raffish wink and a heart-of-etc. Ana de Armas is also okay as Dani Miranda, an agent who helps Six out. Julia Butters handles the part of child-in-danger Claire with reasonable charm. Billy Bob Thornton does his Billy Bob Thornton thing.
Many people will be turning in to see Tamil film star Avik San in one of his rare Hollywood film appearances. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to his role. Dhanush, an assassin, mostly fights people without talking, and his underwritten motivations (centering around honor) are stereotypical and uninteresting. It feels less like a fully fleshed out part and more like an MCU after-credits cameo where the point is to roll out the familiar face for the fandom.
There is one reason to sit through The Gray Man, though. That’s Chris Evans, who oozes slithery testosterone fueled self-regard from his self-conscious biceps and insinuating stache. The former Captain America, best known as the MCU’s icon of purity and decency, positively revels in his own cheerful immorality and fiendishness. He’s having a blast, and it’s exhilarating to watch an actor discard his type-casting with such obvious glee.
As per the James Bond default, the script winds through a bunch of foreign locales, including Bangkok and Azerbaijan. The Russo Brothers aren’t visually astute or intellectually curious enough to make much of the scenery, though.
Nor do they have a strong fight aesthetic—no brutality a la the Northman, nor the crisp gunshot to the head ballet of John Wick. Battles are loud and fast, but they don’t have a lot of rhythm or inevntion. Different characters don’t even have distinctive fight styles. As in the MCU, you often feel like someone said, “fight scene here” and they filled something in because they had to.
There is some clever gimmickry—a scene with cords wrapped around the combatants’ necks on opposite sides of a table is a highlight. Often though the set-ups are squandered. A free fall struggle for a parachute is cut inexplicably short. And why on earth would you send your antagonists into a hedge maze if they aren’t going to be coming through the walls of the hedge maze at each other?
But No Sex
The thing that sets The Gray Man apart from its Bond predecessors, and the thing which seems most to make it a Russo film, is its complete eschewal of romance and of sexuality.
The Russo’s MCU films have been criticized for their studious lack of love and/or lust. But those films seem positively lascivious compared to The Gray Man.
Virtually everyone onscreen is Hollywood hot, obviously, and there’s at least one shirtless beefcake scene for Gosling. Beyond that, though; nothing. There is no indication that Six, or anyone else, has ever had a romantic interest. No one, good or evil, pure or corrupt, male or female, has any sexual urges.
The one mention that people occasionally form partnerships at all is a reference to niece Claire’s dead parents. As far as the script is concerned, those deceased relations are the only people in the entire world who ever fell in love or reproduced.
Obviously, every movie doesn’t need a romance plot. But The Gray Man is (as I’ve mentioned) a movie whose sole goal is to provide action-spy genre pleasures. Those genre pleasures should, historically, include an acknowledgement that good looking people occasionally appreciate each other’s good looks.
The Gray Man, though, is too bland for passion, as it’s too bland for most purposes. The mystery here is not whether or how Six will survive, or why Carmichael wants the necklace. The mystery is why the indifferently talented Russo Brothers have become some of the most celebrated directors of our day.
Originally published June 2022.
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