The philosophy of The Gray Man, directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo,
seems to be to just keep moving—from locale to foreign locale, from plot point
to plot point, from action sequence to an even bigger piece of action spectacle.
It rarely stops for anything that isn't driving forward its generic plot, which
is about a specialized and off-the-books assassin for the CIA being chased by a
lot of people who want him dead.
When the movie does take a breath, the screenplay, written by the latter Russo
with the duo of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, certainly doesn't take
the chance to give us a sense of anything beyond the confines of this plot. That
might be too much of a distraction from the momentum.
It also, though, means there's very little reason to care about anything
happening on screen or anyone caught up in all of those happenings. Our
protagonist is a mostly anonymous, unofficial government assassin who goes by
the code name "Sierra Six," although his few friends, close acquaintances, and
most personal enemies just call him Six, to do away with the formalities. Six is
played by Ryan Gosling, who's always reliable when it comes to characters whose
emotions either have long departed or are so bottled up that it would take some
significant force to release them.
One of those descriptions fits Six, whom we first meet in 2003—locked up in a
federal prison for murder. Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), a CIA official with a
lot of clout at the time, arrives with some bubble gum and an offer. Six's constant chewing
of gum and toothpicks is some of what the filmmakers see as character
development here. The spy will get the unnamed convict out of
prison, but he'll become an "indefinite" asset for the agency, killing targets
on orders without any questions. The movie's viewpoint on such matters is as
shallow as its characters: All of that activity is fine, as long as the right
people are giving the orders.
Eighteen years later, Six is still a killer on the government payroll on an
assignment in Bangkok (the first of many, many brief stops during this
globe-hopping story), and as it turns out, the wrong person is now the one
giving him orders. His new boss Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) has ordered Six to
assassinate a fellow Sierra operative. Our hero refuses to risk a child's life
to kill his target from a distance, and that level of basic morality is, sadly,
the deepest characterization we get out of him. Before his fellow numbered
assassin dies, he gives Six an encrypted drive with damning evidence against
Carmichael and his use of the Sierra program for personal gain.
The MacGuffin sets the extended chase of a plot in motion, as Six tries to find
a way to decrypt the files and Carmichael puts a bounty on his operative to
prevent his misdeeds from coming to light. The man in charge of the hunt is
Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a private contractor whose methods of torture were
too much for the CIA. In the world of the movie, the killing thing is fine, as long as it doesn't
get too messy. As the playful sociopath, Evans' performance is a
deviously amusing highlight of a movie that rarely provides personalities to its
characters and barely possesses a distinct personality to call its own.
The gears keep turning in a routine and predictable motion. Six travels to
different places, tries to keep a step ahead of his pursuers, and gets into
assorted kinds of trouble with people who want to kill him or turn him over to
Lloyd, who also has abducted Fitzroy and the former boss' niece Claire (Julia
Butters) as leverage on Six. Some of the obstacles are as elaborate as a runaway
tram in Prague (where the Russos seem to have little concern for the incredible
destruction and certain civilian toll on such a disastrous event) and as
quaintly clichéd as a trapdoor, which Six is convinced to walk on as if he's in
a Spy vs Spy comic.
The action sequences are both over-the-top and ridiculously contrived in just
how much Six survives. Lloyd makes a joke about how, unbelievably, nobody seems
able to shoot the guy, even when he's handcuffed to a bench in an open square,
but it's only funny because it's true that the scene is particular
unconvincing. The regularly choppy editing of those sequences mostly ensures
that we never have a solid understanding of the geography, spectacle, and stunt
work within them.
The Russos might have lessened the feeling tedium here with even a little more
of the kind of self-awareness that Evans brings to his role. However, Gosling
remains a chewing, snarky, and occasionally winking cypher of a protagonist,
while the movie wastes the rest of its cast, including Ana de Armas, as Six's
reluctant sidekick, and Alfre Woodard, in a brief appearance as a terminally ill
ally. The Gray Man comes from a series of 11 (and counting) books by Mark
Greaney, and since the movie leaves plenty of room for the main character's
continuing adventures, there's still some potential to him. It's just not