It’s possible that the fights in “The Gray Man” are cool. No one will ever know. Edited by a blender with meth addiction and shot while the sun was on time out, almost all the copious brawling is nearly indecipherable. It’s like someone telling you they can do Bruce Lee’s sweet nunchaku moves, but only if you close your eyes. This is a problem, considering that the entire premise of “The Gray Man” is “Hey, what if…violence?” Still, somehow Netflix’s latest attempt to bust blocks at home remains in the general vicinity of a good time.
In 2003, Six (Ryan Gosling) is recruited out of prison by Billy Bob Thornton to do murders for the CIA. This is highly plausible because, in real life, the government absolutely loves exploiting the incarcerated for free labor. Nearly 20 years later, Six is still killing in the name of the good ole US of A. When a young hotshot named Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) takes over for Billy B, Six discovers he’s corrupt AF. And everyone knows that it’s okay to shoot people in the face if you’re told to by a nice bureaucrat but not a mean one.
Six flees with evidence, so Carmichael dispatches Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to eliminate him “by any means necessary.” The difference between Six and Lloyd seems to be that Six only kills innocent people by accident, whereas Lloyd does it on purpose. This is also the difference between America’s political parties. Lloyd kidnaps Claire (Julia Butters), who is B.B. Thornton’s niece. This angers Six, who once babysat her, which is a lifelong bond you never forget. With the help of Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), whose name is possibly never actually mentioned, Six attempts to save Claire, kill Lloyd, and bring Carmichael to justice. Because that’s what convicted-murderers-turned-unpaid-government-assassins do.
The biggest shock in “The Gray Man” comes just after the credits start to roll, and you realize what you watched was based on a book. Not just one book either, there is apparently a whole series dedicated to…a character whose defining characteristic is not showing any emotion. Six’s real name is never given here. His backstory, which is told in an avalanche of flashbacks, is pretty much just “really needs to speak to a mental health professional.” Gosling smolders better than most, and his gruff smugness pops best against Evans’s campy mustache-twirler.
At least we can understand the simplistic motivations of the two lead dudebros. The reasoning behind why Dani chooses to help Six is explicitly explained as “concern about her career.” Say what now? She’s willing to face-shoot strangers and bring about biblical collateral damage because she’s worried about her future job prospects? #GirlBoss, right! The closest any female character in the film gets to agency is working for the CIA.
Directed by the Russo Brothers, “The Gray Man” fittingly operates in the limbo between genres. It’s not smart enough to be an espionage thriller, not cheeky enough to be an action comedy. Saved only by its relentless pace, Gosling’s smarm, and Evans’s bluster, it is basically “Stupid John Wick.” Please note: John Wick is not a MENSA member.
Grade = B-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Rachel Leishman at The Mary Sue says “ ‘The Gray Man’ is the kind of action movie we’ve come to love from the Russos and a great time—especially if you love Gosling and Evans just throwing one-liners at each other while getting stabbed, shot, punched, and thrown into cars.”
Travis Hopson at Punch Drunk Critic says “At a reported $200M cost, one might think it should have something to say, as well. But that’s not what Netflix was paying for.”
Hoai-Tran Bui at Slashfilm says “Its greatest disappointment is that it knows what it has — Gosling, a great cast, a lot of money — and it still ends up being less than the sum of its parts.”