The Gray Man Review: Jason Bourne Has a “Identity Crisis”
With an all-star cast led by Ryan Gosling as a CIA hitman on the lam, the Gray Man constructs itself with the leftovers and flimsy flourishes of far better action movies.
The film is directed by Joe & Anthony Russo, who, along with co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, were in charge of creating a significant portion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (most recently, Avengers: Endgame).
However, the MCU is frequently criticized for lacking a discernible style. Like their previous effort, the Tom Holland-fronted Cherry, The Gray Man is a product of too many conflicting approaches with no unifying vision. As a result, it is a spy movie mish-mash that takes too long to be enjoyable.
Based on the Novel Series by Mark Greaney
The Gray Man is Netflix’s most recent attempt at the first entry in a good franchise, and it is based on the novel series by Mark Greaney (a regular collaborator of the late Tom Clancy) (see also: The Old Guard).
The Russos received a whopping $200 million from the streaming behemoth. Still, this investment is scarcely apparent in the movie’s fragile, textureless aesthetic, which makes exotic settings feel cheap and brutal action scenes seem hurriedly put together.
Nearly every character in the story feels like they were taken straight out of a spoof spy movie, speaking only in general espionage jargon and rarely displaying any signs of humanity.
One notable exception, or attempt at one, comes in the form of Chris Evans’ stylish, psychopathic private sector hitman Lloyd Hansen, who spends most of the 129-minute running time pursuing Ryan Gosling’s character, codenamed Sierra Six.
Evans’ performance ultimately fails to make a lasting impact because it is too rigid in its commitment to “type” and too distinct in its attempts to depict tongue-in-cheek villainy.
Six is recruited from a jail cell by agency operative Donald “Fitz” Fitzroy (a de-aged Billy Bob Thornton) in a brief prologue set in 2003, before the film jumps forward 18 years, with Six caught in the middle of a Bangkok hit where things don’t feel quite right.
Six does things his way and causes a stir at a flashy nightclub, leading to a barely comprehensible fist-fight with his target, which ends with him acquiring secret data that threatens the Agency’s operations, aided by field agent Dani Miranda, and questionably ruthless instructions by ruthless his new boss, the young hot-shot
The title is explained as a reference to his morality, but the film’s moral dimensions are entirely glossed over. What follows takes cues from Skyfall, the Bourne Trilogy, a few Mission: Impossible movies, and even John Wick, but it never manages to create a memorable character or action sequence.
While Gosling leads the film’s witty, self-aware dialogue — yes, The Gray Man is particularly Marvel-esque in this regard — the script doesn’t give Six a distinguishable personality trait or a fundamental objective beyond surviving militarised attack number X before making his way to Asian or European location number Y in anticipation of the following big sequence, leaves him largely perplexed.
Attempts are made to give him a heart by introducing the complication of Fitz’s kidnapped niece (Julia Butters), whose history with Six is revealed through a lengthy and awkwardly structured flashback that stops the movie dead; The Gray Man.
He loves its time jumps! — but Six isn’t so much a person as he is an amalgamation of cinematic ideas, none of which are given the necessary breathing roer.
Most of the cast is similarly constrained by the edit’s requirement to jump from scene to scene without a long-lasting human moment. De Armas isn’t so much doe-eyed as a deer in the headlights; she’s a capable actress, but she struggles to even cast a questioning glance from the abyss of the story.
Even poor Jessica Henwick, who plays Carmichael’s second-in-command, is saddled with only a few objections and observations about Hansen’s destructive methods to give the film the appearance of conscience or dilemma — the CIA needs to assassinate people the “right” way, quietly and legally; how brave — until The Gray Man remembers that Henwick may be helpful in some potential sequel, granting her last-second usefulness that only serves to.
Evans’ Hansen is billed as a sociopath, but he’s less intimidating than in Dear Evan Hansen; perhaps Evans is too straightforward a performer, or maybe the writers and directors gave him little to work with in terms of the character’s sinister villainy.
Given his broad nothingness, the juxtaposition of his vicious demeanor, loafers, and designer casual wear comes across as aggressively plain rather than intriguing. Furthermore, the film includes, albeit briefly, an excellent example of this archetype in the form of “Lone Wolf,” one of the many John Wick-esque assassins set loose by Hansen in his contracted pursuit of Six.
Dhanush, a Tamil cinema superstar, plays the role of Lone Wolf. While he only appears in a few scenes (and his only distinguishing feature is a vague orientalist concept of “honor”), his combination of patterned suit and graceful movements during his fight scenes captures the kind of harmonious clash between cruelty and style that the film craves from Evans.
The Gray Man squanders its all-star cast by providing them with little to work with other than quips. In terms of style, The Gray Man establishes unequivocally that the Russos’ copy-paste visual approach is untenable.
Their Bourne-style hand-to-hand combat quick cuts lack visceral impact. Even in their most legible medium and wide shots, there’s no sense of composition to draw the eye and little in the way of lighting and color to accentuate mood (comparing the film’s title to its muddy color grading would almost be too easy)
The brothers even include drone shots in their arsenal, seemingly randomly. Whereas Michael Bay’s Ambulance used drones to turn a chase into a four-dimensional roller coaster, the Russos use them as establishing shots or connective tissue when they can’t figure out how to move from one part of a fight scene to another.
The Gray Man eventually transforms into a watchable mid-2000s thriller — the kind you’d rent on DVD because the cover featured crosshairs, redacted documents, and possibly a wilting American flag —. Still, by then, so much breath has been wasted on creating non-characters that its last-minute attempts at emotional intimacy have no legs left to stand on. It’s a film about nothing and no one in particular, and it’s not even visually appealing.