Review: Ryan Gosling Is a Steely Assassin in Russo Brothers’ Action-Heavy The Gray Man

I suppose it wouldn’t take that much of a suspension of belief to assume the government would hire professional killers to do its dirty work from time to time; I just think it’s weird that these type of suicide squad stories are practically all we’re getting these days. The latest is The Gray Man, from Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame), concerning just such a criminal-turned-government-operative named Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling), codenamed Sierra Six, who is plucked from a federal penitentiary by his eventual CIA handler, Donal Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), to kill a few bad guys in an act that the government can’t legally be a part of. 

After Six is recruited, the film jumps ahead several years. Fitzroy has retired and is looking after his niece Claire (Julia Butters), while Six continues to run missions for a new, less morally solid boss named Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page, from Netflix’s Bridgerton). When Six fails to complete a particularly sensitive mission, along with Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), Carmichael is convinced he’s hiding something, which he is—a thumb drive given to him just before his target died. It turns out the target was another agent, who warns Six that he might be next.

The rest of The Gray Man is a cat-and-mouse game between Six and various hired killers who Carmichael has brought in to erase our antihero, including a particularly nasty piece of work, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), who has no qualms about killing children, women, the elderly, and anyone else who gets in his way. He also has a terrible porn stache and a cockiness that demands he be killed before the end of the movie. I know this is meant to be Evans playing against type, but Lloyd might be a swing too far in the other direction from Captain America.

The fairly stacked cast includes appearances of various sizes from the likes of Jessica Henwick (The Matrix Resurrections, Iron Fist); Alfre Woodard; Bollywood superstar Dhanush, as another trained killer; and even Shea Whigham, as Six’s drunk father, whom we only see in flashbacks near the end of the film. I’ve frequently heard that Netflix uses a casting algorithm to populate its original films, and The Gray Man’s lineup feel like a prime example of that technology put into action. On paper, the film is next level. And even in practice, the Russos have proven themselves to be top-of-the-line action directors. There are a handful of choice chase and fight sequences that are simply breathtaking and are even worth repeat viewings. But the steely calm that Gosling gives Six comes across as emotionless and empty, even in the scenes where he’s cracking the occasional joke. 

Rumor puts the price tag on this film at $200 million, and it’s all on the screen as the story takes us across the globe to Prague, Croatia, Turkey and Hong Kong (and those are just the places I could identify). But to what ends? I can see Netflix and the Russos wanting to turn Six’s adventures into a franchise (the character comes from the book by Mark Greaney), like the Bourne or Mission: Impossible movies, but in order to make that happen, Gosling is going to have to give us more than just the generic tough guy persona. I suppose it’s a world brimming with possibility, but The Gray Man doesn’t offer us a compelling enough first chapter to have me groveling for more of the same.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.