In 2003, an unnamed young man (Ryan Gosling), facing a lengthy prison sentence for murder, is approached by the mysterious Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), who offers to end the man’s sentence then and there if he comes to work for the CIA. Now, known only as Sierra Six, the man is tasked with the CIA’s most covert operations. On an assassination mission in Bangkok, Six realizes that his target is a fellow agent (Callan Mulvey), who in his dying moments hands Six a jump drive containing incriminating evidence against the CIA’s smarmy new head, Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page). Six goes rogue to save himself, and Carmichael enlists psychopathic operative Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to put him down. Outmanned and outgunned, Six’s only allies are the now-retired Fitzroy and his agency colleague Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas).
From its first scene, the movie leans heavily on clichés, kicking off with an obvious “save the cat” moment in the form of Six risking his mission to save a child’s life. And for all the busy plotting that follows, at its core The Gray Man is really nothing more than an extended fight over a MacGuffin. In terms of entertainment value, it’s the worst of both worlds: both simplistic and convoluted. It’s not exactly boring thanks to its punchy rhythm, which whisks us between locations and plot points so fast that there’s little time to dwell on the flimsiness of the story. The gambit works for a while, but proves unsustainable; the movie’s finale, a prolonged siege on the villains’ compound, is its dullest stretch.
But The Gray Man’s selling point isn’t the story, it’s the larger-than-life thrills. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo fitfully find ways to spice up the otherwise-generic action sequences – in one, the simple addition of a pink smoke bomb adds real style; another scene has Six caught in the middle of a massive gun battle while handcuffed to a city bench. But while the fight choreography is solid, the blows are disappointingly feeble, thanks in part to a chaste PG-13 rating. Given the movie’s propensity for knife fights as well as gunplay, this is a mistake. There are some impressive practical stunts, but they have the unintended effect of making the weightless CGI even more glaring.
Despite its title, The Gray Man deals in black and white morality: we’re meant to cheer for the good guys and hiss at the villains, even if none of them are particularly memorable. Every role is a standby from the action-movie stable: the stoic hero, the wise mentor, the psychotic heavy; and their fates are just as standard. Twice, doomed supporting characters blow themselves up to buy Six some time, and neither instance evokes the slightest emotional response. Anytime the movie threatens to do something unexpected, it returns to its predetermined track, and eventually this completely removes all stakes.
Of all the parties involved, Evans comes out best, clearly relishing a rare opportunity to play the heel. On paper, his character is a standard villain, but between a handful of clever lines and Evans’s enjoyably big performance, Hansen is actually a tad dynamic. An intriguing combination of menacing and childish, he’s the only thing in the movie with any real personality.
The rest of The Gray Man is tonally consistent, always making the most lukewarm choice possible and playing it safe by never being too gritty or too campy. Instead, it’s happy to settle on the bland middle ground that Netflix calls home.