' ' Cinema Romantico: The Gray Man

Monday, August 22, 2022

The Gray Man

“The Gray Man” is Six (Ryan Gosling), so called because he is the sixth agent in a CIA black ops program deemed Sierra, sort of A Very Special Operation Treadstone of The Bourne film franchise in so much as Six was imprisoned as a minor for killing his abusive father and sprung by the CIA to become a super-duper secret assassin with something looming far more nefarious than a retirement plan. Indeed, as the movie opens, he is on a mission in Bangkok along with the evocatively named Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas, utterly wasted) to kill someone selling state secrets. But at the point of dying that someone tells Six that he is, in fact, Four, that Sierra is not what it appears, and that Six is next, handing him an encrypted drive proving that the Sierra program’s boss Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) is corrupt. This sends Six on the run and causes Carmichael to enlist private contractor Lloyd Hanson (Chris Evans) to find and kill Six, stopping at nothing, including the kidnapping the a young girl named Claire (Julia Butters) the Sierra assassin was once enlisted to protect. 

If nothing else, directors Anthony and Joe Russo display a gift for engaging distraction, the kind exemplifying the small screen experience epitomizing Netflix distributions like this one. “The Gray Man,” like last year’s “Red Notice,” hopscotches locations, ensuring we are always seeing somewhere new, hits us with another big setpiece right as we might be starting to note the lack of one, and then pauses for several exposition dumps to make certain anyone who might have missed crucial information while checking their email, perhaps, or folding their laundry, maybe, can understand what is going on. Those exposition dumps are telling, however. If they provide context for the viewer momentarily distracted from wrangling their kids while “The Gray Man” plays in the background, even when delivered by such capable actors as Alfre Woodard these long-winded explanations fail to match or even come near the gold standard of modern-day exposition dumps – Paul Giamatti in “San Andreas.” Informational, yes; electrifying, no, and evocative of an overall inability to elevate the material.

I know loyal frustrated followers have likely tired of me pointing out how most present-day action sequences pale in comparison to “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” and “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” so allow me to spare you going over all that again and say the CGI-heavy mid-air escape pales in comparison to the mid-air escape of “Eraser,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1996 thriller I enjoyed just fine then but think about all the time now. Yet is not just CGI that dooms these sequences; it is creative imagination too. A shootout in Prague that segues to a speeding tram benefits from location work, true, but suffers from a lack of imagination. Six begins this scene handcuffed to a bench yet manages to fight off a swarm off would-be assassins with one gun while chained up. It’s ridiculous and the movie knows it, enlisting an off-site Lloyd to lament “How hard is to shoot somebody?” The Brothers Russo, betraying their sitcom roots, are too content to let this one-liner summarize the moment’s inherent comedy rather than bringing out the comedy in how they stage the scene, oddly rote for a moment that in theory should be so improvisational. 

It’s so strange. “The Gray Man” wants to be funny, sometimes, and sometimes it is. We here at Cinema Romantico are not shy about saying we prefer the glib comic stylings of Ryan Gosling to those of Ryan Reynolds. But “The Gray Man” frequently turns grave too, not least in Six’s backstory, disrespectfully squandering preeminent That Guy! Shea Whigham as the character’s abusive father. Though the showdown between Six and Lloyd is teased throughout like the run-up to a heavyweight championship fight, the battle itself, recounted in fading light, is less gleefully entertaining than tediously somber. And in these moments, just like in the more emotional ones with Claire, Gosling does not quite seem sure what to play to and as such downplays so severely that he becomes more of an automaton here than in “Blade Runner: 2049.” Evans, meanwhile, is singing in the over-the-top key of his moustache, playing a guy who thinks highly of himself and giddily deploys every resource at his disposal. The CIA agent sent to monitor him, Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Renwick), is also hapless to stop him. Renwick’s performance, in tandem with how the Russo Bros. present it, is singing in a far more earnest key than Evans, sucking all the air out of what could have been a rollicking send-up of the military industrial complex, “The Gray Man” in capsule. Who needs something so serious and sincere when you’re folding the laundry? 

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