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'The Gray Man' review: Even on-screen assassins need something to believe in

Ryan Gosling as Six in<em> The Gray Man. </em>
Paul Abell
Ryan Gosling as Six in The Gray Man.

The Gray Man is very well-made, if unnervingly empty.

That's what the growth of stylish, hyper-violent, technically accomplished, skillfully produced, massively budgeted movies has done. It has cemented the primacy of an entire category of film that can do everything that could possibly be expected of it, everything it means to do, and can still feel made out of nothing. Cast with talented, capital-M-capital-S Movie Stars with the charisma to carry it – in this case, Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans – a movie like The Gray Man can have a lot of pleasures. It can have cleverness, inventiveness, a wink to its embrace of extremely silly set pieces. But there's something that's just not there about it, an unnerving sense that if you unwound the whole thing layer after layer, you'd discover it's wrapped around only itself.

The setup, based on Mark Greaney's 2009 novel, is this: Years ago, to get out of a long prison sentence, the man we know as Six (Ryan Gosling) gave up his identity – name, history, family, connections – and became an assassin, an asset of the United States government, in exchange for his "freedom." He is part of one of those Impossible Mission Force-style teams, the glamour of which is based on the idea that there are limitations on what the government does in the light of day, and that the bravest bad-asses are the ones who ignore those limitations. Six begins the story being sent to kill a guy he doesn't know anything about, but during the mission, things get complicated, and he winds up on the run himself, on the wrong side of his own secret, violent, lawless, unaccountable organization. Whoops? (This basically happens to absolutely every participant in a force like this at some point.)

Six's chilly boss (Regé-Jean Page, just as hot in a suit and glasses as he was on Bridgerton) wants him tracked down by any means necessary and brings in a private contractor to do the job. That contractor's name is Lloyd Hansen, and he is played by Chris Evans in an unflattering short haircut and a cheap, sleazy little mustache. Lloyd may have imposing arms (in both senses), and he may sometimes show the same flashes of wit that Evans brought to his role in Knives Out, but make no mistake: Both these guys are longtime hired killers, but he is the bad guy. Six is meant to be the good guy, just trying to survive and save Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), the retired mentor whose continuing safety is now being used as leverage against him. (Hansen is into straight-up torturing people, which we get to/have to watch, and which is one of the many things about the film that raises the question: Look around at the world; do we have to do this right now?)

There are a lot of lively, nicely done bits in The Gray Man: smart uses of reflections, a preposterous but propulsive sequence involving handcuffs and a bench, a solid running gag about the people who keep having to help Six not die, and an underutilized but still effective Ana de Armas doing a lot of very cool fighting. Gosling's dry, exhausted muttering and Evans' cheesy, sleazy, high-energy declarations are an effective matched set. The action doesn't feel phoned-in; it feels stylish, in its way, as does the "everything should look like a nightclub" lighting of much of the movie, including the parts that do not take place in nightclubs.

Rege-Jean Page as Carmichael and Ana de Armas as Dani Miranda. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022
Paul Abell / Netflix
Rege-Jean Page as Carmichael and Ana de Armas as Dani Miranda. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

But The Gray Man feels hollow, and it's not because it needs to be a character-driven drama. It's enough for the stakes to be all about good guys and bad guys; it really is! But in this case, everybody in the story is a merciless killer who does what they're told (we don't necessarily know what kinds of people Six has killed on request) and murders who they're told to murder, pretty much, and picking through the details to differentiate who's good and who's bad feels beside the point.

In the dynamic between Six and Hansen, the inspiration would seem to be Die Hard – with Hansen as the highly competent bad guy you almost root for – except that John McClane was also trying to save a building full of innocent people. Finding all of this unsatisfying is the kind of complaint that gets one tagged as a person who doesn't understand mindless action movies, but lots of mindless action movies don't suffer from this ailment. They find a way to feel built around something solid, whether it's a team or a mission or a particular purpose. Consider, if you will, the fast. Consider, as we must, the furious.

The Gray Man also can't quite work as a story of chaos among amoral chaos agents (the way, say, a mafia story can), because Six and Hansen don't have an existing relationship. In fact, most of these people don't have much in the way of relationships with each other, other than Six and his other mentor, played by Alfre Woodard. The relationship between the two of them feels instantly genuine and compelling, by far the most believable in the movie – but the time we spend with it is comically brief. If everybody is going to be off-the-books hired killers differentiated only at the margins, the stakes have to come from the individuals. Let's have some betrayals, some old wounds, some old arguments, some long-growing resentments. We've got Ryan Gosling and we've got Chris Evans and we've got Ana de Armas; we could even have some sex.

There's something more interesting hovering around the edges of this project, as is often the case with creatively unsatisfying outings from talented people. The Gray Man is both a celebration of a certain kind of intoxicating, overcranked masculinity and, at times, a mockery of it. Lloyd is terrifying and merciless, but he's also ridiculous. And the basic structure of the film is that Six finds himself in situation after situation in which it appears that he cannot possibly escape (in the manner of James Bond or, if you will, MacGyver), and it repeatedly takes other people – specifically, women – to bail him out. There is a delicate balance in which Six is both a superhuman who survives the obviously unsurvivable, and a fallible guy who keeps getting got. Gosling and Evans both seem to be playing to this potential, to the preposterous manly showdown that neither of them really has the juice to win. But while that idea dances around the margins, the film comes back over and over to a more conventional, more muscular (literally) approach.

What is missing here is a narrative engine. Call it "John Wick's puppy": the moment that provides even the thinnest thread of something else to care about besides killer versus killer. Of course, it's important to acknowledge that, as in John Wick, many fictional women, mostly wives and girlfriends but also the occasional daughter or colleague, have given their lives on- or off-screen so that men with guns can seem more human, which is also not great. Here, along those lines, you eventually get a vulnerable young girl imperiled, but by the time that happens, it seems wildly cynical.

The directors of The Gray Man are Joe and Anthony Russo, whom you might know from making Marvel movies (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame) that grossed something like six billion dollars worldwide. What they have learned about how to stage a big action sequence with the benefit of a huge budget (reportedly $200 million) shows here. While this is far more bloody than an MCU outing, it's also solidly choreographed, if more than a little silly. It's the kind of movie where a fight takes place around the tubes that are firing off a fireworks display just because ... sure. Why not? Looks cool! It's the kind of movie where a guy in a fight starts throwing around red smoke bombs because ... sure. Looks cool! (I should note: I went to a theatrical screening. Because this is a spectacle, it will be interesting to see how it holds up when seen mostly at home.)

Nothing here seems accidentally or poorly done; these are choices. With all the effort that's gone into the action, the most conspicuous issues with execution are actually in the dialogue. While there are some funny lines, particularly for the two leads, there are also places where a line that's clearly meant to pack a punch sounds like a first draft that needed a couple more passes. You can tell what the line is supposed to do – you are cued by sound and pacing and pauses – but it doesn't quite do it.

Wishing is not critique. It may not be, in the strictest sense, criticism to simply wish everyone involved in a project like this had taken their considerable talent, skill, power, money, imagination, and so forth and done something else. The Gray Man seems to be exactly what it means to be, and in the moment, it's often fun. But there's something eerily vacant in its assembly. Maybe even trained movie assassins need something to believe in.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.