“Six is an odd name,” murmurs a young girl fiddling with her polaroid camera and kicking her heels in isolation. “Yeah. Double O 7 was taken, so..” intones Ryan Gosling in response.
Bond may be the self-proclaimed reference point by Gosling, as the top assassin in the plausibly deniable Sierra programme, but Netflix’s latest huge budget star-studded movie is less ice cold suave more straight-faced Superman.
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain American: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame) and adapted from the series of Gray Man novels by Mark Greaney, The Gray Man is an action thriller by directors who know how to make the screen utterly pop with kaboom eye candy regardless of the plot ambling manner in which we get there.
Something of the superhero genre has bled into the DNA of The Gray Man. Six is a character that likely works incredibly well on the page (Jack Reacher fans need look no further). There is a delirious pleasure in almost superhuman competence.
The reason why the John Wick films are so much of a rush is a combination of leading man charisma and the knowledge that Wick’s skills are almost without parallel: Michael Nyqvist’s palpable cold sweat dread upon learning who his son has wronged is the mana upon which such a movie feeds.
Does Gosling have the same star quality? As an actor he certainly leans more towards the understated side of the scale, but in The Gray Man he almost falls over doing so.
During down time this withdrawn confidence is compelling. Tasked with protecting his boss’s daughter, Gosling’s scenes with a young Butters work because, whilst it is a classic trope, there is fun to be had with a talkative kid needling a stoic professional.
During the bombastic action sequences though, one could be forgiven for thinking that Gosling had been replaced by a waxwork. No matter how competent you are, it is ok to flinch when fighting off an entire cabal of killers.
Frankly, the plot can go hang as even the Netflix trailer fails to adequately give any shape as to the why. What we are watching The Gray Man for is the how.
The Gray Man Official Trailer
Is The Gray Man Worth Watching?
Stunts! Explosions! How can he possibly get out of this hole in the ground! Public transport shoot outs! The Russos know how to inject some fireworks into the blood stream and The Gray Man transplants their comic book kudos into some real world bullet-fu.
Filling out the super qualified contingent is Ana de Armas as Dani Miranda. Dani is a CIA agent who allies with Six as fairly standard plot conspiracy is predictably unearthed (there’s a flash drive with important information on that every one wants, yadda yadda yadda) and does the exasperation heavy lifting in his stead.
Unwillingly partnered up with expressionless efficiency, de Armas colours out of the lines in this otherwise paint by numbers affair.
Perhaps to compensate for Gosling’s ‘so focussed there isn’t time to wince’ approach, there is no denying that the rest of the cast go full on.
Billy Bob Thornton boggle-eyeing down Chris Evans under the face of nasty torture keeps the scene on a level of ‘action comic’ rather than ‘gritty spy thriller’. Evans, as the messy psychopath who gets things done, goes to town with a level of cackling and (literal) moustachioed glee that must be a catharsis after a decade of buttoned up ‘America’s Ass’.
The Gray Man is the movie you put on because you want to watch a film, but it isn’t the night for a broody or brain-engaging 2 hours.
Despite all my critical points over the last few paragraphs (and a rather baffling kicking online) I had plenty of fun watching The Gray Man even if it feels like a better film is deep undercover within at times, or at least a sillier one.
Oft-forgotten daft fest Shoot ‘Em Up featured an exasperated crime boss Paul Giamatti hissing “Do we just suck or is this guy that good?” and that movie had Clive Owen in the lead who also, diplomatically, leans towards the understated scale of acting.
Maybe the wish fulfilment here is simply the fantastical notion of watching someone be very good at their job whilst all hell breaks loose around them. In that sense, The Gray Man is like a PR video. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in ruthless efficiency.
Words by Mike Record