The Gray Man by Mark Greaney is the first book in a best-selling series that is named after a quality that is as desirable for a spy as it is difficult to find in contemporary films about their exploits: the ability to move through the world undetected and to be so unremarkable that those you interact with will forget you as soon as you leave the room.
Court Gentry, played by Ryan Gosling, was a murderer serving time in jail until the CIA’s Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) decided to hire him as a black-ops assassin. He is now Sierra Six, the final active member of Fitzroy’s Sierra group in the Dirty Dozen fashion. The first time we witness him in action, we might be in awe of his perseverance. His task requires shooting up through the ceiling at a man two stories above him with a weapon the size of a jackhammer, a target who was only moments earlier wandering about in the open. It is one of the most stupidly constructed assignments in the history of hitman movies. Six cancels the assignment and executes the assailant in an old-fashioned manner when a youngster shows up.
But while he’s still alive, the victim confesses that he’s a former Sierra member who was killed because he possessed a flash drive with proof that the Agency’s group commander Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page of Bridgerton) was murdering individuals all around the world for his own murky ends. Carmichael casts Six as a renegade and dispatches all of his agents to assassinate him after realizing that Six now has the motivation.
Enter Chris Evans, star of two of the greatest films directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, Avengers: Endgame and Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War. Evans plays Lloyd Hansen, a sociopath so amoral even the CIA fired him; now he’s a mega-rich freelancer Carmichael calls as a last option. Evans seems to be having a lot of fun acting against type. He is a ham who enjoys torturing people and operates out of a French castle on 19,000 acres. He has an endless budget and no morals.
The coupling of Evans and Russo isn’t the only reunion present. Ana de Armas, Gosling’s co-star in Blade Runner 2049, joins him in the role of Dani Miranda, an agent whose career is threatened by all of this but who chooses to aid Six despite her reservations. Although the actors’ on-screen chemistry from that movie doesn’t transfer over, Miranda at least gets to save Six frequently enough to make him feel insufficient. The Bond character has more personality, but the role is more significant than de Armas’ action-hero performance in No Time to Die.
Speaking of Bond, The Gray Man undoubtedly aspires to rival him and Ethan Hunt in terms of exotic locales, adventurous actions, and outrageous set pieces; nevertheless, this is a very expensive goal that isn’t always rewarded. For example, a sequence in which Six is trapped on a cargo plane that is breaking apart while he fights off killers falls short of the insane thrill of action in Roseanne Liang’s pulpy Shadow in the Cloud; a protracted gunfight in Prague’s Old Town with an endless stream of killers miraculously avoiding our hero feels like a John Wick leftover.
Julia Butters, from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, portrays the role of Fitzroy’s niece, who was abducted by Hansen. Even though she played a more convincing precocious youngster in the Tarantino picture, a child’s presence here is important for other reasons besides merely making Six appear heroic by trying to save her. Instead, one of the few instances of human-scale violence in the movie occurs when he silently defends her, allowing Ryan Gosling, who is making a much-welcomed big-screen homecoming four years after First Guy, to demonstrate the calm-but-deadly qualities that this man is made of. (A later hand-to-hand battle scene starring the multi-hyphenate Indian actor Dhanush is also worthwhile, but its conclusion seems implausible.)
Naturally, the scenes with Gosling and Evans interacting directly or through intermediaries are the most entertaining. When we’re in command centers, seeing intelligence professionals try to cover their butts, it becomes less interesting. In her brief appearance on TV as Fitzroy’s former buddy, Alfre Woodard excels. However, despite having a lot of screen time (Jessica Henwick portrays Carmichael’s deputy), Page and Henwick struggle with weakly developed characters and formulaic power moves.
The action of the novel has been significantly altered by Joe Russo, working with his frequent partners Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; like with the Tom Cruise-led Jack Reacher adaptation, the author’s devoted following may not recognize what they see. It is therefore wise that the action in the film does not strongly imply that this will be the first of many Gray Man appearances, despite early reports (and showbiz logic) suggesting as much. It could be better from an aesthetic standpoint to let this journey stand alone. Additionally, Netflix is now tightening its belt and focusing on increasing income, so turning down an extravagant sequel would not even insult the artists involved.