With “The Gray Man” (★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday, streaming continues Netflix July 22), directors Joe and Anthony Russo offer an action-packed but shaky and familiar version of a Bourne-Or bond stripe. This adaptation of Mark Greaney’s novel is tonally inconsistent and narratively thin (according to her “Mission Impossible” franchise is safe Tom cruise). Last but not least, the stylish and sophisticated thriller brings sass to the secret agent genre, and there are worse things than watching a bad guy Chris Evans try to kill Ryan Gosling for two hours.
Eighteen years ago, when he was an incarcerated juvenile, Court Gentry (Gosling) was recruited by Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) to kill people for the CIA. The guy who now goes by the name Six has become known for his black ops expertise, and his latest mission finds him in the assassination squad in Bangkok.
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However, the target happens to be a member of Six’s secret unit, and Six comes into possession of a hard drive full of dirty secrets owned by haughty CIA boss Denny Carmichael (“Bridgerton” Breakout). Regé-Jean Page) doesn’t want to get off.
Enter Lloyd Hansen (Evans). Lloyd, a sociopathic and malicious CIA contractor with a pornostache and an endless selection of shabby polo shirts, is tasked by Carmichael with “locating and destroying” Six and retrieving the drive. The protagonist gets help from fellow agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), who saves his butt many times, and the emotional stakes rise when Six discovers that Lloyd has not only captured Fitzroy, but also the handler’s young niece (Julia Butters).
The Russos are once again collaborating with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley – the brain trust behind the best Captain America movies and Avengers: Endgame. So what happened here? Those films came in with existing personalities, and the character development of Gray Man just isn’t there. Super cool explosions, insane car chases and vicious hand-to-hand combat only go so far, although the actors – led by de Armas and Indian action star Dhanush as the antagonist with a conscience – do all they can with their archetypal roles.
The subplot about the niece seems aimed solely at fleshing out Gosling’s stoic, deadpan character, with mixed results – mainly it just slows down the dynamics of the fight scenes and verbal sparring. The over-the-top shoot-’em-ups and wanton demolitions — usually with Six falling or jumping off something — spill from Thai nightlife to the streets of Prague, with stops in Vienna, Croatia and Berlin, but the locations all feel the same way equal and don’t add much globetrotting spectacle.
Most importantly, in their post-Marvel work, the Russos have given their superhero stars room to stretch. Last year’s ambitious “cherry” allowed Tom Holland to flex some dramatic muscles than slip into a Spider-Man suit, and The Gray Man deliciously explores Evans’ evil side. Yes, he’s the best of the “Chrises,” and he does a complete 180 from the virtuous Captain America and proves it once again: Lloyd yells at subordinates, goes punch for punch and muzzle for muzzle with Gosling, and absolutely possesses a wealth of Clever Zingers like, “If you want to make an omelette, you have to kill a few people.”
If you’re craving an over-the-top action movie, The Gray Man is probably worth a stream for it alone, a diabolical villain playing an otherwise unforgettable spy game.