Review: ‘The Gray Man’ pits Ryan Gosling vs. Chris Evans in action-packed spy flick

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Gray Man'

In 2014, Joe & Anthony Russo directed Chris Evans in the killer “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), earning the keys to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a crowded “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), shocking “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) and cathartic “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), the No. 2 top U.S. grosser ever (No. 16 inflation adjusted).

Now, the filmmaking duo reunites with Evans, only this time as a sinister bad guy battling Ryan Gosling for a dream match of Cap vs. K in “The Gray Man.” The big-budget $200 million movie opened in limited theaters last week and hits Netflix this Friday for a colorful, action-packed spy flick to please the Marvel loyalists but not likely to convert detractors.

Based on Mark Greaney’s 2009 novel, the film follows Sierra Six (Gosling), who trades his prison sentence for black-ops training by CIA agent Fitz (Billy Bob Thornton). He’s hired by Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) to do a hit on Sierra Four, who gives him a device that proves Carmichael is scheming with the evil private-sector goon Lloyd Hansen (Evans).

As Carmichael explains, “He founded a program to recruit harden criminals, commuting their sentences in exchange for a lifelong commitment to the agency. Assets were chosen for their skill set, lack of family and plausible deniability. Identities permanently destroyed. Nameless assassins with limited morality. I mean, what could possibly go wrong, right?”

Gosling isn’t the hunky romantic of “The Notebook” (2004), talkative charmer of “La La Land” (2016), nor the silent type of “Drive” (2011) or “Blade Runner 2049″ (2017). Instead, he exists in the middle, in the titular gray, a wounded soul whose father burnt him with car cigarette lighters, but a caring guy who once protected Fitz’s daughter and will do it again.

“Extra $10 million to the next guy to put a bullet in this Ken Doll’s brain,” says the villainous Evans, referencing Gosling’s upcoming role in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” (2023). Evans is the best reason to watch “The Gray Man,” a villain who would twist his mustache if it were long enough, a baddie who shoots and kicks his already-dead henchmen on the ground.

Evans is clearly having a ball with juicy acting choices. During a torture scene with pliers peeling finger nails, Evans slowly scoots his chair over: scoot, scoot, scoot. Later, he stops during a fist fight to remove pebbles from his shoe. “You wanna make an omelette, you’ve got to kill some people,” he bluntly says, sparing us the broken eggs of dialogue cliches.

The rest of the characters are throwaways. Evans tells Page, “You look like you’ve been hit by a bus, but it only adds to your mystique,” yet Carmichael remains an enigma. Thornton and Alfre Woodard are selfless CIA veterans without enough screen time, while Ana de Armas and Jessica Henwick kick butt as hero and villain sidekicks without backstories.

Instead, the Russos focus on zingers for Gosling, who kills a home intruder then calmly quips, “Broke a bowl,” or winks to say, “It’s just another Thursday.” One convo made me laugh out loud as Evans says, “Normally, I’d find a desperate ugly chick to lick my wounds and split. … Guess what I’m thinking right now?” Gosling replies, “That you overshared.”

There’s a lot of oversharing in “The Gray Man,” as the Russo Brothers bounce from Bangkok to Turkey to London to Hong Kong to Vienna to Berlin to Prague, all listed in superimposed block letters for each location change. It’s enough globetrotting to fill James Bond’s passport, cover Indiana Jones’ flight map and make even Jason Bourne dizzy.

Rather than the hyper-realistic cinema verite of Paul Greengrass in “Bourne,” we get a candy-colored Marvel color palette in an opening action sequence with New Year’s Eve fireworks. The “Mission: Impossible” setup of spies stationed with ear pieces is cool, as is the “John Wick” hand-to-hand combat, but a swooping shot is jarring amid the quick cuts.

The second big action sequence is an exploding plane with a hole sucking out guys like “U.S. Marshals” (1998) and baddies splattering in propellers like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). This is followed by a high-speed battle on a city bus like “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021) before a garden-maze climax like “The Shining” (1980).

Expect plenty of action tropes along the way, particularly henchmen spraying bullets without ever hitting the heroes. It’s the type of stakes-lowering nonsense that makes us zone out of action movies. When bullets never land, the gunfire becomes cartoonish. At least the Russos call themselves on it as Evans says, “How hard is it to shoot somebody?”

Let’s also ask the Russos: How hard is it to kill somebody? “The Winter Soldier” brought Bucky Barnes back from the dead and faked Nick Fury’s death. “Infinity War” had the guts to kill dozens of superheroes with a Thanos snap, but “Endgame” immediately undid it by shrugging it off as “The Blip.” If we get “Gray Man” sequels, the dead may rise again.

Hell, you could say that fake death is the Russos’ auteur signature, to steal a phrase that Joe Russo dissed to The Hollywood Reporter: “Auteur filmmaking is 50 years old at this point. It was conceived in the ’70s. … But we’re also aware that the world needs to change and the more that we try to prevent it from changing, the more chaos we create.”

The masses don’t care, but cinephiles cringed at this false film history. Auteur theory was invented in the late 1940s by French critics like André Bazin, who co-founded Cahiers du Cinema in 1951, allowing François Truffaut to dub it the “the policy of the authors” in 1955 before American critic Andrew Sarris translated it to English as “auteur theory” in 1962.

To suggest that it started in the ’70s misses the point that auteur theory exploded during the French New Wave as a way to assess Hollywood’s Golden Age (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford) for consistent directorial trademarks. The Hollywood Renaissance filmmakers of the 1970s referenced by Russo (Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg) were the next generation.

Russo’s jab at a fundamental building block of film criticism is exactly why critics are slamming “The Gray Man” despite strong audience ratings. The film’s dialogue even gives them snarky ammo: “This is quite possibly the most spectacular failure in the history of [movies]. This will be taught in schools as the primary example of exactly what not to do!”

I’m not that mean. I met the Russos. I like the Russos. They deserve praise for: (A) a camera moving through several floors to show the line of fire in Gosling’s gun scope; (B) a drone shot swooping through hospital doors to reveal Gosling sneaking inside; and (C) diegetic use of Mark Lindsay’s “Silver Bird” as a soundtrack counterpoint to the violence.

But why give auteur credit to someone who knocks the auteur theory?

Dang it, you kinda shot yourself in the foot with that comment, Joe.

Then again, gunshots matter as much as critics’ opinions in this genre.

Suffice to say, “The Gray Man” brings everything Marvel fans love about Marvel movies (minus the capes), while “The Gray Man” also brings everything that Marvel detractors hate about the genre that’s squeezed out mid-level movies. You’ll “love it 3,000” or you’ll hate it 3,000, but either way, it’s probably more explosive on the big screen than Netflix.

3 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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