Netflix's Spy Thriller 'The Gray Man' Is Peak Wannabe Blockbuster

The Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans showdown is undone by corny banter and underwhelming action.

ryan gosling in the gray man

"I get it: you're glib," says Billy Bob Thornton's CIA handler Donald Fitzroy in the opening scene of The Gray Man, Netflix's latest attempt at an action blockbuster. In the moment, he's talking to a younger, rougher version of the titular gray man, a criminal-turned-government-assassin played with the expected amount of slight remove and arch cockiness by Ryan Gosling. But, really, Fitzroy could be talking to any character in this often exhausting spy thriller, a movie that reimagines the most ruthless operators in the world as chatty quip-machines straight off the Marvel assembly line. To put it in the reference-heavy parlance of The Gray Man: It's The Cringe Ultimatum, baby.

Instead of memory loss, Gosling's Court Gentry (codename: Sierra Six, or "Six" for short) must contend with a traumatic past and a shadow-strewn bureaucracy that wants him dead. After taking out one of his fellow trained killers in a balloon-filled opening set piece, he learns that his shaky-sounding program is being permanently decommissioned and he's now the new target of a Harvard-educated CIA command-chain climber named Denny Carmichel (Regé-Jean Page). More importantly to the movie's poster and streaming thumbnail, Denny has recruited Lloyd Hansen, a boorish and sadistic military contractor played by Chris Evans, to finish the job. In theory, that should let Gosling and Evans, a gun-toting Ken doll and a conniving Captain America, engage in some hunky spy games.

chris evans in the gray man

Who is responsible for this exercise in Funko Pop Michael Mann aesthetics? The Gray Man was directed and produced by Anthony and Joe Russo, the brother team responsible for Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Captain America: Civil War, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Working from a script credited to Joe and Marvel collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, adapted from a 2009 novel by Mark Greaney, the filmmaking duo have applied their bag of tricks (an always roving camera, a brisk sense of pace, and, when in doubt, very loud assault weapon fire on the soundtrack) to one of Hollywood's most reliable non-superhero tentpole templates. On paper — or, perhaps more accurately, on a balance sheet — it sounds like a sure thing. There's a great tweet about how Marvel makes two kinds of movies: spacey sci-fi ones for stoners and "the hat ones." Despite not being a Marvel movie, The Gray Man is very much a Hat Movie and the Russos remain the key auteurs of Hat Cinema.

That means you get lots of terse phone calls, a surprisingly brutal torture scene, and plenty of moments where guys jump through windows. In addition to Thornton, plenty of gifted actors are called in to deliver exposition and keep Gosling tumbling from one shoot-out to the next. Ana de Armas, one of the best parts of No Time to Die, gets reduced to a predominantly thankless sidekick role as a fellow CIA agent; Jessica Henwick, a jolting presence in last year's Matrix sequel, is stuck behind a desk scowling at Evans for most of the film; the brilliant Alfre Woodard and Tamil cinema star Dhanush have even less to do as a legendary CIA handler and an elite hitman, respectively. From the impressive feats of casting to the beautiful international locations to the clearly immense vehicle destruction budget for the chase sequences, one increasingly gets the sense that the filmmakers have sacrificed specificity for scale. The film lacks the slick immediacy and visceral punch of Extraction, the Chris Hemsworth starring streaming hit the Russos produced for Netflix a few years back. Compared to the soaring action filmmaking feats of this year's Top Gun: Maverick, Ambulance, or RRR, The Gray Man is content with shooting itself in the foot.  

As much as Netflix clearly wants Gosling's Six to be their answer to Ethan Hunt or James Bond, the movie itself will more likely remind you of 2021's similarly expensive (and bloated) Netflix extravaganza Red Notice. The banter here isn't quite as excruciating, but there's a similar hollowness, a near pathological need to undercut the potential for genuine suspense or tension with a not-so-clever aside or a Babe joke. (The Evans character, a bro-ey take on Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive outfitted with a flattop and a mustache, is guilty of delivering some of the biggest groaners.) At one point, Gosling's Six survives a CG-assisted fall from a burning plane and gets a phone call where he's asked "Where are you?" and he responds, "Emotionally? I've been better." Out of context, the line might not sound especially glib, and it would probably float by in a Marvel movie, but it's a decent example of why it feels like the executive team behind this production was ordered to initiate Mission: Impossible – Dork Protocol. Like the actual CIA, Netflix has seemingly perfected the art of funneling money into mostly useless assets.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.