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If only the rest of the movie were having as much fun
It's hard to know for sure what goes on behind the scenes, but there is ample evidence to suggest that Chris Evans had a great time shooting The Gray Man. In this Netflix original directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, he plays the baddie, Lloyd Hansen, an ex-CIA agent turned sociopathic gun-for-hire. Looking beefier than ever (bigger biceps even than Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Love and Thunder? I'd need to get out my tape measure) he giddily chomps up the scenery, wiggling and giggling (you read that right) his way though this otherwise rote action-adventure picture.
The direction seems to have been "go nuts, do whatever!" and his instincts serve him well. Though chiseled from concrete, he practically minces when he gets hurt (which is often), sometimes delivers lines like Bill Murray would, and sports a goofy mustache that, somehow, he restrains himself from twirling.
Evans's performance is, alas, the only notable thing in this preposterous, globe-trotting movie with so many cliché moments of barked dialogue it comes this close to sounding like a Saturday Night Live parody. What's worse is that a movie like this lives or dies by its action set pieces, and many of them absolutely fall apart due to cheap-looking CG. (This is where Netflix's PR side may have flubbed; critics were shown the film in a theater, though most will watch it at home. Maybe it looks better smaller?)
Ryan Gosling plays the gray man of the title — he is a convicted killer yanked from prison by Billy Bob Thornton to exist "in the shadows" of the CIA, executing operations too thorny to have on any official record. Naturally, he's the best — beyond Bond, beyond Bourne. But someone in the agency wants to take this rogue wing out now that Gosling (who goes by Six) possesses a microchip that can bring the whole system crashing down.
Six starts his adventure in Bangkok, then heads to Chiang Mai, somewhere in Turkey, Vienna, Prague, and, finally, a castle in Croatia. Hansen, hired by the same CIA that once sacked him, puts down his torture equipment in Morocco, heads to Azerbaijan, then Berlin, then — oh, did I mention a big Hong Kong flashback? — well, the point is I hope everyone collected miles on the same airline. There are some outstanding establishing shots before most of the action goes indoors for under-lit fight scenes.
I say most of the action because, to be fair, a big sequence in Prague is quite thrilling. This is because it is outside, where you can see what's happening. You would think that big fancy filmmakers like the Russos — who have directed two of the top five worldwide grossers ever, somehow — would not need a tip like this from a guy like me, but life is full of surprises. Alas, the Prague shootout eventually devolves into a highjacked train gag that collapses under the weight of poorly rendered CGI.
The other travesty in this film is that Ana de Armas is third billed and given absolutely nothing to do. She's only one of the most vibrant, alluring, and charismatic performers of our day, and she gets no splashy spotlight, no good zingers and, most frustratingly, no good outfits. Did the Russos not see No Time To Die? It's as if they looked at her dazzling scenes from that film and deliberately did the opposite.
For a Netflix action picture with huge stars, The Gray Man is better, certainly, than Red Notice, but not as good as Extraction. And Extraction is far from a masterpiece. Gosling is paired with a precocious kid for some of the movie (Julia Butters) and it's just so preposterous one simply has to laugh. I guess laughing is good, so, in that way, The Gray Man is good, too.
Watching The Gray Man will not ruin your day, and Chris Evans fans will have something to sink their teeth into. (Gosling is fine, but plays it all rather straight.) But, I dunno, it's July. Maybe go outside? Finish that book you put aside? Unlike a convict indentured to a black ops unit, you have options.
Premieres: Friday, July 22 on Netflix
Who's in it: Chris Evans, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas
Who's behind it: Joe Russo (director, producer), Anthony Russo (director, producer)
For fans of: Chris Evans hamming it up