The Gray Man review: Russo Brothers' globe-trotting thriller delivers movie stars and mayhem
He will strangle them in Hong Kong; he will kill them in Manilla. He leaves a trail of broken bones in Rome and an asteroid-size pile of rubble in Vienna. (Which seems like it should fall under some kind of UNESCO heritage laws, though who's got time for those?) Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) is a government agent, but an extremely off-the-books one, which is why they call him the Gray Man: He's vapor, an assassin without a name or a past or a place he calls home. And, with the help of half of Hot Hollywood, he leaves a swath of destruction and fitted pants across several continents in the Russo Brothers' latest slice of post-Marvel pandemonium (on Netflix July 22) — a maximalist action thriller that is almost comically violent, unfailingly glib, and intermittently very fun.
If you want backstory, you'll get it in one vanishingly brief early scene and a few fuzzy flashbacks later: Gosling's lone wolf was once a lowly young inmate imprisoned for murder until an unflappable fixer named Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton, an elder statesman here) came along with a better offer — join the C.I.A., and trade his wet-work skill set for freedom and unlimited travel opportunities. But when Six, as he's been code-named, takes down a target in a Bangkok nightclub, his mark's dying words make him question what cause he's actually serving after years of active duty. Are they having him eliminate his own coworkers?
There's a sympathetic fellow agent, Dani (Ana de Armas), to help him figure that out, and a puffed-up, unscrupulous supervisor, Denny Carmichichael (an amusingly snide Regé-Jean Page, freed from his Bridgerton britches) determined to end him before he gets the chance. To speed things up, Denny has grabbed Donald's tween-ish niece (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's Julia Butters) as collateral and brought on a freelance mercenary called Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to obliterate Six by any means necessary and retrieve all evidence of the C.I.A.'s dirty deeds.
There's a lot of chum in the water — the various teams dispatched to take down Six die like plankton, quick and anonymous — but not many small actors to fill out the supporting roles. Nearly every minor character in The Gray Man is played by someone interesting, from Alfre Woodard as a shrewd ex-department head and Narcos' Wagner Moura as a squirrely informant with a fondness for knitting and oubliettes, to Bollywood star Dhanush as a dapper adversary and Game of Thrones' Jessica Henwick as a special-ops officer who might actually have a conscience.
But Evans, smirking like a catbird, is the movie's main antagonist, and his pairing with Gosling is the pretty-man Godzilla vs. Kong most viewers came to see. Though he's played Captain America for Anthony and Joe Russo many times over, most recently in Avengers: Endgame, the actor seems positively giddy every time he gets to flip to the role of, as some have fondly come to call him, America's A-hole. Here everything about Lloyd, from his fascist little mustache to his schoolyard taunts, delights him; against Six's wry cool-guy remove, he's the leering frat-boy jester, pretty much begging to be punched in that perfectly symmetrical face.
And the punches do come, in combat scenes so relentlessly kinetic and busy they make Fight Club feel like Tai Chi. Rendered largely in the bang-pow crunch of brute video-game force and tinged with slapstick comedy, the action unfolds in a series of wild, adrenalized set pieces — in a maze, at a hospital, on a disintegrating airplane — across global capitals that the Russos swap out as easily as Zoom backdrops. Gosling, tasked with playing the kind of man who kills indiscriminately but would probably also pause to free a kitten from a tree, brings a minor-key melancholy beneath the swollen soldier-of-fortune deltoids. He seems to know what we do: that title aside, this isn't the kind of movie interested in shades of gray. It's red-meat candy, a Bourne Identity for brains thoroughly trained in over-stimulation, and already long gone on summer holiday. Grade: B–