Ryan Gosling stars and Chris Evans slouches throughout “The Gray Man,” an expensive (and expensive-looking) Netflix-produced action caper that sets the two marquee-topping actors against each other for instantly forgettable reasons.
Co-directed by “Avengers: Endgame” helmers Anthony and Joe Russo (who adapted a script from Mark Greaney’s novel with Stephen McFeely) “The Gray Man” pits Gosling’s quippy but otherwise stoic CIA hitman against Evans’s frantic (and therefore only ostensibly menacing) government contractor.
Both performers coast on their by-now well-established personas and respective assets – the Russos seem especially invested in highlighting Evans’s biceps and hips – but Gosling projects enough confidence and charm to make you want to keep watching.
Gosling plays Sierra Six, a poised but frequently bloodied killer, with an attractive distance that’s not possible for Evans, who, as the loutish and unstable killer Lloyd Hansen, tries to deliver a character-actor turn, presumably to re-establish his range after playing Marvel’s square-jawed Captain America for so long. Unfortunately, nobody but Gosling stands out given how thin everybody’s dialogue and characterizations tend to be, although Ana de Armas does what she can as Agent Dani Miranda, Six’s stubborn place-holder sidekick.
Dani and Six become the CIA’s most wanted targets after he’s gifted with an encrypted flash drive by his latest target, a fellow former prisoner-turned-CIA assassin (Callan Mulvey, “Shadow in the Cloud”) who warns Six that he can’t trust Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), Six’s current CIA contact and superior.
Six and his fellow government ops frequently mutter about the impersonal nature of their jobs, but Lloyd crosses a line when he kidnaps Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), an ex-CIA recruiter, and Claire (Julia Butters, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), Fitzroy’s disaffected niece. In a perfunctory and momentum-halting flashback, we see Six and Claire bond after he saves her from hired killers. He comforts her by insisting that it’s “just another Thursday.”
That feigned nonchalance suits Gosling’s character and delivery, especially given that most of “The Gray Man” trails after Six as he evades Lloyd and various hired gunmen throughout Eastern Europe – namely Austria, Croatia and the Czech Republic. Six’s most interesting character trait stems from his knack for making impossible escapes look easy. There are other potential sources for drama scattered throughout “The Gray Man,” particularly Six’s father-son–type relationship with Donald, as well as his paternal bond with Claire. But none of these stick in the mind for long, given the movie’s generally insubstantial dialogue.
Unfortunately, Gosling’s suggestive body language only compensates so much for his character’s general lack of definition since most of his co-stars don’t get to do as much with their insubstantial roles. De Armas proves to be exceptional, since Dani often impatiently muscles her way past Six and Carmichael, both of whom either take Dani for granted or treat her like an obstacle that needs to be cleared.
Evans doesn’t fare as well given Lloyd’s schticky and mostly rote sociopathic behavior, from his cheery schoolyard taunts and pet names (“Hi, sunshine!”) to his mercurial temper. As Lloyd, Evans struggles to stand out even as he pulls out fingernails, wears form-fitting preppy clothes and inevitably holds a teenage girl at gunpoint.
Butters, who plays the unhappy adolescent in question, doesn’t even get a few good quips in during her handful of scenes with Gosling. That’s sadly not surprising since Claire’s defined by her helplessness – she has a pacemaker! – and general reluctance to be baby-sat by a rotating host of impersonal minders.
The movie’s glossy but poorly assembled action scenes also look more chaotic and disjointed than they should in a movie that’s always pushing you to the next set piece. The Russos continue to do their best directing when they reduce their human cast members to their silhouettes, making them the most important parts of any given landscape or master shot. The Russos’ medium close-ups of moving body parts don’t express as much nor do they sync up well enough that the movie’s action scenes flow from one big impact or explosion to the next.
Each gun- or fist-fight features a few cool individual images, but these standalone elements never exceed the Russos’ blurry presentation. That’s especially deadly in an action movie that’s constantly trying to give viewers the impression of speed and scope, like when drone cameras transition between scenes by flitting around various cities’ identifying architectural features.
“The Gray Man” might have been more compelling if the Russos slowed down long enough to focus on their cast members’ body language, especially Gosling’s attractive and compelling performance. The actor’s tendency of underplaying Six’s obvious physical discomfort – lots of running, jumping and shooting – only calls attention to how hard his fellow performers try to keep viewers’ attention on them. And while Evans seems to be excited by the unpleasant tics that define his unlovable character, he never gets to go far enough to make Lloyd more than a generic threat.
Gosling’s character sometimes jokes that he could really use a good nap, but he also appears to be the only one in “The Gray Man” who’s not falling down on the job.
“The Gray Man” streams Friday on Netflix.