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Review: 'The Gray Man' is Missing in Action

Kurt Loder on

The most enjoyable parts of "The Gray Man" are the two or three moments in which nothing blows up, when it feels as if a balmy oasis has snapped open for business in the middle of a battlefield. But no sooner do we begin to rally from the movie's relentless tumult than it leaps back into action, screaming on through acres of dull characters, narrative jumble and second-tier CGI, and leaving us, at the end, adrift in face-clawing boredom. That's how it hit me, anyway.

This $200 million blop of streaming content isn't what you might have expected right now from Netflix (which is launching it with a one-week theatrical run). The company has been hemorrhaging subscribers lately, and after having spent $17 billion on programming last year it recently vowed to become pickier about the projects it throws cash at. Since "The Gray Man" was in development for the better part of a decade, maybe it avoided the cutoff. In any case, the spigot-tightening vow should probably be reaffirmed.

What we have here is... well, pretty much everything that money can buy. The directors (Anthony and Joe Russo) and writers (Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely) are all valued employees of the Marvel blockbuster factory (chiefly the "Avengers" and "Captain America" franchises). And the stars -- Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, among others -- are likewise top-shelf. Even the book on which the movie is based must have cost a significant sum. (It's the first of a 12-volume "Gray Man" series by Mark Greaney, an acolyte of Tom Clancy, the late laureate of this kind of international action lit.)

Possibly due to the Clancy connection, everything about the movie feels a little dated, starting with Gosling's character, an omni-competent assassin with the highly silly name of Court Gentry ("Sierra 6" to his handlers). We see Gentry being recruited out of prison, where he's doing time for murder, by CIA agent Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). Then, suddenly, it's 18 years later and we're in a Bangkok nightclub watching a woman named Dani Miranda (Armas) handing Gentry a water pistol. Then Gentry and Dani start shooting people with real guns as they make their way out of the club -- pausing only for Gentry to have a chat with a dying guy who says he's Sierra 4, and that Gentry is being betrayed.

Gentry would like to know what's going on. (So would we.) To find out, he calls his old controller, the now-retired Fitzroy. Reaching for his thriller-cliche kit, Fitzroy asks Gentry, "What's your gut?" Next Gentry gets dispatched to Shanghai -- no knowing that there's now another assassin in the game, this one bearing the silly-in-a-different-way name of Lloyd Hansen (Evans). Hansen is a cheery sadist with a bad porno mustache, a taste for muscle-hugging polo shirts and a penchant for yanking out fingernails with his own personal pair of torture pliers. (For the sake of making the writers earn their paychecks, he's also a Harvard grad with a knack for quippery: "Don't say 'preternatural' to me," he tells one character. "It's an asshole word.")

So, Hansen is now on Gentry's tail. And before long, to up the tension, Fitzroy's 13-year-old niece Claire (Julia Butters of "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood") is added into the mix, joining Rege-Jean Page of "Bridgerton" (as the CIA director), Alfre Woodard (as a retired agency chief) and Jessica Henwick (as another top agent). There's no shortage of compelling actors in this movie, only an extreme shortage of anything interesting for them to do besides running around various European locales firing preposterously large weapons. Even the picture's traditional spy-movie travel porn lacks flair. No sooner do our peripatetic G-men touch down in places like Monaco, Turkey, London or Hong Kong than they're yanked away again to Vienna, Berlin, Prague or a castle in Croatia. And as is so often the case with such things, few of these places, real though they be, come equipped with a real sense of place.

 

At least Chris Evans seems to be having a good time in this picture, playing way against his usual cute-guy type. But Ryan Gosling, so outgoingly good in so many films, reverts to the kind of inscrutably inward performance he's given before in movies like "Drive" and "Only God Forgives": the kind in which we miss him even when he's up onscreen.

The people who made this major misfire of a movie have also made the mistake of pronouncing it the first in a series -- the linchpin of a franchise, in other words. I guess we'll see about that. And pretty soon.

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Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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