With spectacular fight sequences and ludicrous dialogue, the Russo brothers deliver the perfect, classic action flick with “The Gray Man.” Sure, Chris Evans’ mustache gave the film a 1980s patina, but so did the lack of retooling or reimagining of the pure action form. They did make one like they used to. This is an unapologetically pure action movie, and as such, tremendously entertaining.
The directors of two Avengers movies and two Captain America movies (and lest we forget, “Arrested Development”) have repurposed the most straightforward, directly heroic superhero as a snarky, irreverent villain here — Chris “Captain America” Evans is mercenary assassin Lloyd Hansen. He is pitted against Ryan Gosling as the so-called “Gray Man” of the title, an ex-con recruited from prison to work on a super secret CIA team called the Sierras. They’re supposed to be faceless, nameless operatives who cannot be traced back to anyone, and Gosling is simply known by his number, Six.
The film opens with one of his assignments, to take out a guy in Bangkok; he is directed to do so by the haughty Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), who wants him to follow instructions without questioning. Naturally, he doesn’t do that, and soon we are treated to a frankly awesome fight from the middle of a massive fireworks launching pad. My appreciation for this makes me sound like a middle school boy, but it was pretty righteous, and I stand by my assessment. Fireworks and explosives feature prominently in many of the fight scenes.
As cool as this was, I almost couldn’t get past the terrible dialogue, and I honestly wonder if they were intentionally messing with us. As people growled at one another in cool deadpan voices, every single line they spoke was a silly one-liner. It was laughable, and perhaps intentional. However, once we established who hated who and whatnot, the verbal nonsense settled down and got out of the way of the plot.
Gosling is cool and handsome, and easily up to the task of leading this film. Billy Bob Thornton plays it fairly straight as the CIA agent who recruits him and becomes a father figure to Gosling. Their relationship is what makes the story matter, particularly when Thornton’s niece (Julia Butters) gets thrown into the dangerous mix. Thornton has had many wacky roles but he is compelling here as an aging alpha male, and he uses the energy he usually puts into being quirky into bringing a meaningful depth to the masculinity of his character.
Chris Evans, on the other hand, puts lots of energy into being quirky and seems to be having a grand time doing so. As the CIA agents, easily the most boring characters in this film, try to maintain their distance from the operation, they turn to musachioched loose cannon Lloyd Hansen to take Six out and get back the secret information that’s getting further and further from their grasp. He does so with unprincipled violence, unbridled scenery chewing, and yet more gleefully dumb one-liners. If you have as much fun watching “The Gray Man” as Chris Evans does marching around in it, resplendent in his snug white trousers, loafers and Kramer shirt, you are in for a good time.
Ana de Armas is another straight character who brings some much-needed balance to the mayhem and — even though she is about to appear as the ultimate bombshell when she portrays Marilyn Monroe in a film later this year — she is a tough and nimble agent here. Departed “Bridgerton” heartthrob Regé-Jean Page did not really stand out as the villain who unleashes Chris Evans on Six. Although technically, Page’s character is at the center of the inciting events of the film, his presence does not make a big impact, and the “why” of people’s actions feels secondary to how everything goes down.
“The Gray Man” is a pure action movie, and that action is deliriously executed. The plot beats may not be innovative, but the fight choreography really is. The Russo brothers don’t reinvent the action genre here, but they do perfect it. Chris Evans turns his charm to smarm against Ryan Gosling, who dispatches his enemies with a knowing wink and just enough heart to bring some meaning to the spectacle.
“The Gray Man” is now streaming on Netflix.
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