If you look at Ryan Gosling’s filmography, you won’t find him playing a leading-man hero in a big-budget Hollywood action blockbuster. So the idea of having him all bulked up and rigorously trained for reportedly seven months to fight like Matt Damon (the Bourne movies) or Keanu Reeves (the John Wick movies) is no doubt a refreshing change of pace.
And the good news is, he certainly pulls off a convincing action-oriented role in The Gray Man, where he plays a CIA assassin codenamed Sierra Six. Eighteen years ago, we learn that he first got recruited by Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) to join the Sierra programme, where he will be trained as an assassin. Cut to the present, Sierra Six’s latest mission involves him executing a target with the help of his partner, Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas). The target, however, ends up handling Sierra Six a MacGuffin in the form of a medallion. Apparently, it has something to do with the agency’s dirty secrets that Sierra Six’s CIA commander (Regé-Jean Page’s Denny Carmichael) wants badly.
So, when Sierra Six chooses to go to Fitzroy instead, now a former head of the Sierra programme, Carmichael hires a sociopathic contractor Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to do whatever means necessary to get rid of Sierra Six and retrieves the MacGuffin.
From there, it’s globetrotting cat-and-mouse mayhem, covering various locations from Baku to Vienna and Prague. Co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo pull all the stops here — for better or worse — with a whopping US$200 million budget at their disposal, making The Gray Man one of the most expensive Netflix movies ever made (the other one would be Red Notice). Despite their prior experiences in the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Infinity War, I’m quite surprised the action here is a mixed bag. Certain setpieces tend to look distracting with busy backgrounds and rapid-fire editing, namely a scene that takes place in a smoke-filled environment filled with fireworks. This, in turn, makes it quite hard to appreciate the elaborate fight choreography or shootouts in a clear and cohesive manner.
Still, there are some other action sequences that I enjoyed here, notably the extended Prague-set moments that begin with a handcuffed-to-a-bench Sierra Six trying to stay alive while shooting the heavily-armed assassins. It gets better from there and even with an onslaught of CGI, the subsequent car chase and a spectacular fight inside a speeding tram make the whole sequence all the more exciting and propulsive.
The story — credited to Joe Russo alongside their frequent collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely — where they adapted Mark Greaney’s 2009 novel of the same name doesn’t offer anything new that we have never seen before. Basically, The Gray Man is a familiar mishmash of espionage genre that borrows from James Bond to Mission: Impossible and yes, even Bourne formulas.
And here, the Russo brothers cranked the plot high. Like over-the-top high that doesn’t afraid to wear the word “preposterous” as a badge of honour. The movie may have been too long, where its 129-minute running time could have paced tighter since The Gray Man is more of a cat-and-mouse chase movie anyway. Blame it on the unnecessarily sluggish midsection that dilutes the movie’s breakneck pace in favour of an extended flashback sequence involving Sierra Six in charge of taking care of Fitzroy’s young niece (Julia Butters’ Claire). I’m sure such a scene is included to humanise Sierra Six’s otherwise cold-hearted assassin character. If only the chemistry between them works, I wouldn’t be pinpointing the flaw in the first place.
A few shortcomings aside, The Gray Man is far from an outright failure. Certainly not as bad as the Russo brothers’ last outing in Tom Holland-starred Cherry. At least, it has a few worthwhile moments that keep me streaming from the start till the end. Apart from some good action sequences and Gosling’s rare leading-man hero role, I’m also glad he still retains his trademark cold and brooding charm throughout the movie. Not to forget, his deadpan delivery in certain scenes makes some of the witty and dry humour work well in his favour. It also helps that Gosling is backed by a few solid co-stars, beginning with Chris Evans’ gleefully sardonic antagonist turn as Lloyd Hansen. Gosling also reunites with his Blade Runner 2049 co-star, Ana de Armas, who brings sassy support as Sierra Six’s partner, Dani Miranda.
The Gray Man is currently streaming on Netflix.