If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that there’s always a booming market for assassins — and should you be a government-sanctioned executioner, you’ll eventually use your deadly skill set against the very folks who’ve trained you. (That, and don’t feed creatures purchased from a Chinatown antique store after midnight. All very important life lessons.) By now, the moving pictures are littered with legions of hit men and hit women who’ve spent years dealing out death for a living, only to discover that they’ve been betrayed by the powers that be and must survive by their well-honed wits. It still remains the job du jour for most film characters, even if they’ve retired from the life. And as a wise man in a wig once said, “In the future, every movie star will play a professional killer for 15 minutes.”*
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The wheel has spun and finally landed on Ryan Gosling’s name, and lucky for him, his turn to be a Bourne-again antihero comes via a project with serious pulp-lit pedigree. The Gray Man takes its name, if not its plot, from the first in a series of books by Mark Greaney about a CIA-sponsored killing machine who’s forced to go rogue and, naturally, finds himself in the Agency’s crosshairs. The directors are Anthony and Joe Russo, and the screenwriters are Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, four men who…let’s say they’ve dabbled in making the occasional financially successful event movie. They know their way around a blockbuster, in other words. The budget is rumored to be somewhere around the gross national income of a small country. You can tell the folks at Netflix smell a franchise here — not so much a cash cow as a potential cash stockyard.
Whether or not they ever get around to turning the rest of Greaney’s paperbacks into briefly theatrical, endlessly streamable content, the Russos and friends have indeed delivered one extremely slick-as goose-shit thriller, complete with John Wick-style fight sequences, Mission: Impossible-ish set pieces, James Bond-level globetrotting, and the sort of intelligence-community skullduggery you associate with the aforementioned Robert Ludlum spy-vs-spy flicks. It wants to be your next go-to action-movie series so badly, even if it has to ransack all of your previous favorite action-movie series to do so. You can’t deny that the filmmakers know how to stage these types of things with a high degree of precision and professionalism, any more than you can ignore the fact that you’re essentially watching one long, synthesized greatest-hits reel of a genre. Forget it, Jake, it’s movie stars and sensationalistic mayhem. It’s occasionally a rush, when it’s not reminding you of hollow or exhaustive an exercise in thrillseeking by any means necessary it is.
When we meet Gosling’s unnamed “Six,” he’s sitting in a Florida penitentiary (unlike Patrick McGoohan, this prisoner is a number) and fielding an offer from a high-ranking ops handler named Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). The deal: come work for Central Intelligence Agency as a killing machine under the highly secretive “Sierra Program,” and he can walk out of the clink today. The catch: he will “exist in the gray.” Cut to 18 years later, and Six is sitting in a bustling Bangkok nightclub, coolly receiving orders from fellow operative Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas, ably demonstrating why her asskicking sequence in No Time to Die was way too brief). He has to take out a man who, he’s told, possesses some highly classified intel. To be honest, the guy running this seek-and-destroy mission back in Langley, a bad apple named Carmichael (Bridgerton‘s Regé-Jean Page), would rather not use a Sierra alumni. But Six “happened to be in the region,” and as everyone keeps repeating ad infinitum, he’s freakishly good at what he does.
Except Six hesitates when the unexpected presence of a child compromises a clean kill, things go south and it turns out that his target is a fellow Sierra club member. That intel? It’s evidence that Carmichael is running destabilization ops on the sly. Our stoic hero has got to go underground ASAP. Unfortunately for him, the company has commissioned the services of one Lloyd Hansen to hunt him down. His interests include torture, talking about torture, smiling evilly while engaging in torture, threatening to torture someone at some to-be-determined future date, and sucking on lollipops, not necessarily in that order. The gent has a primo trash ‘stache and quotes Schopenhauer, so you know he’s a villain. And given that he’s portrayed by Chris Evans, you sense that the whole clean-cut, psycho-next-door vibe is meant to take on a few extra meta-layers. Or maybe not. Either way, Evans is having way, way too much fun playing a toxic douchebag. Better this than a space ranger who, once again, is not a toy but the live-action character that formed the basis for a toy. (Full disclosure: We’d buy a talking Hansen action figure in a heartbeat.)
The chase is on, and will include roughly a dozen exotic locales (Baku! Berlin! Hong Kong! Vienna!), de Armas going crazy with a rocket-launcher, an open call for various freelancers to collect the bounty on Six’s head, Fitz’s niece (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s Julia Butters) — who Gosling’s character has a caretaking history with — numerous backstabbings, actual backstabbings, and sequences involving fights within a disintegrating plane at 34,000 feet, on top of a speeding public tram in Prague, and inside a topiary maze next to a flaming mansion in Croatia at dawn. How resourceful is Six, you ask? He can MacGuyver his way out of a makeshift pit in a German turncoat’s apartment using little more than a busted pipe, some gunpowder and Gosling’s resting fuck-you face. If you thought his performance in Drive was stoic, hoo boy. He’s as stonefaced in most scenes here as Evans is over-the-top sociopathic.
All the while, the Russo duo keep things moving along at a brisk pace, stopping only briefly from some ironic needle drops, to let Alfre Woodward remind you why she’s a national treasure and to allow Page, Thornton, Evans, Iron Fist‘s Jessica Henwick and several others spew dialogue lifted from Bartlett’s Familiar Intense-Espionage-Asshole Quotations through gritted teeth. For every genuinely exciting mano-a-mano — the fight scenes between Gosling, de Armas and the extremely graceful Tamil performer Dhanush make up for a lot of CGI-go-boom tomfoolery — you get chases, sieges and shoot-outs that feel extended to the breaking point, as if they were less about thrilling audiences and more about showcasing technique. We’re not sure if the backstory involving an abusive, macho paterfamilias is from the source material, but can definitively say that the way it’s deployed in a climactic stand-off is facepalm-worthy. An attempt to further humanize Six at this late hour, especially after his babysitting bona fides re: Butters have already been established, is unnecessary at best and grade-A, gratuitous Freudian bullshit at worst.
Watching photogenic people destroy well-known metropolitan areas while trading blows and banter, not to mention under the guise of international intrigue and inter-agency betrayals, is one of the multiplex’s greatest gifts to moviegoers. If you can indulge in such cinematic pleasure with a crowd during the summer months, all the better; it’s recommended that you if are going to check this out, try to do so during it’s week-long theatrical run. (It opens this week but doesn’t hit the streaming services until July 22nd.) The Gray Man wants to remind you of what an old-school dopamine dump these types of entertainments are, and it has what seems to be the necessary ingredients to do it. Which, to be honest, only makes you wish this was tighter, tauter, tougher, better. It could be. It should be. The movie’s aims and instincts are killer. Its endgame has way too much filler.
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