The Gray Man Review: An Aggressively Mediocre Action Flick

The Russo brothers must be stopped. First, they threw a wrench in a Tom Holland's promising career by delivering his first clunker with the abysmal "Cherry," and now they've done to Ryan Gosling what he's managed to avoid his entire career: turn him into a generic leading man.

Gosling is one of the finest actors of his generation, and he's managed to become so by mostly avoiding the typical stunt casting that comes with his devastatingly good looks. Star in a Nicholas Sparks romance? Pivot to weird indie mumblecore dramas (and win awards for it). Make rom-com magic with Emma Stone? Turn in some of the most disturbing and disturbingly cool performances of his career. Gosling has consistently kept things fresh — even showing us his incredible comedy chops in 2016's "The Nice Guys" — but after delivering yet another fantastic performance with 2018's "First Man," he disappeared from the screen. So his return to feature films four years later must be worth the wait, right? Sadly, no.

Fifty shades of okay

Gosling stars in "The Gray Man" as Sierra Six, a CIA black ops mercenary who was recruited out of prison with the promise of commuting his sentence. In the 18 years that he's been active, Sierra has made a name for himself as a ruthlessly efficient killer who lives up to his division's nickname as "Gray Men" — agents who operate "in the gray," somewhere between the legal and illegal. They don't exist, and as a result, are expendable.

But when Sierra finds himself the latest to be labeled "expendable," he suddenly finds a lot to live for: for one, the man who recruited him, Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton, phoning it in), whom he sees as a father figure, as well as Fitzroy's spunky niece Claire (Julia Butters, bringing some of that same spark she showed in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"), whom Sierra was once tasked with protecting before predictably forming a close bond with the girl. Fitzroy and Claire are naturally the first to be kidnapped by the psychopathic mercenary-for-hire Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans, having a blast in his villain era) after Sierra finds himself in the possession of a valuable piece of information that could unravel a whole government conspiracy reaching right up to the top!! Just kidding, it reaches right up to Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page, surprisingly charmless in the role that was supposed to be his big movie break after "Bridgerton"), your latest ambitious Man in the Suit who is using government resources for all kinds of unethical things (murder).

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have long been your standard referential filmmakers, but even teaming up with their "Endgame" co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely can't elevate "The Gray Man" from pastiche. The plot is your typical Tom Clancy knock-off with a little bit of the silliest Bourne movie thrown in: a Maguffin, a globe-trotting chase, government conspiracies, a third-act rescue. Things get exciting for a little bit when it appears that "The Gray Man" will turn into a low-rent "John Wick," but even the possibility of Gosling getting to fight off a bunch of colorful hitmen goes kaput when it becomes clear all the "elite" assassins sent after Sierra Six are just more generic grunts destined to be shot down while wearing mildly interesting masks.

The saving grace is in the core performers — Gosling might be wasted for all his talents, but he's at least always magnetic to watch even if he seems like he's just on the cusp of having fun. (This will make you nostalgic for when Gosling got to cut loose in "The Nice Guys.") And when he teams up with his "Blade Runner 2049" costar Ana de Armas, that's when the closest thing to movie magic happens — de Armas is given the somewhat thankless role of virtuous CIA agent who becomes Sierra's wary ally after she clues in on the corruption at the top, but boy, is she fun to watch. Even after the excitement over the "Blade Runner 2049" reunion fades, Gosling and de Armas clearly have chemistry in spades, and it's enough to get us over the hump of some truly bizarre structural choices (there are flashbacks galore, some even interrupting the momentum of the movie) and lackluster quips. Evans is a standout too, chewing up his scenes with glee, even though the film makes the strange decision of sticking him behind a monitor to shout things like "Make him dead!" for half of the film. Sadly, Page is an unimpressive villain, while poor Jessica Henwick is given little to do as his second-in-command other than huff and scowl.

What are we, some kind of gray men?

The funny thing is, it does seem like the Russos have learned something from their misfire with "Cherry" — they're no longer taking themselves so seriously. They throw in the occasional visual flair or camera trick to prove that they still can (though it tends to be more irritating than impressive). When they're no longer out to prove themselves as serious filmmakers as they were with their first post-Marvel directorial outing, they can rely on their strengths — though their strengths start to become questionable after the fifth lackluster quip.

"I get it, you're glib," Fitzroy says to Sierra (then named Court Gentry) when he first meets him. But ... Sierra isn't that glib, at least not more than your average action hero (which may be an indictment of the overall action scene, but let's not get into that). Maybe the shine has been lost — whatever clicked that made the Markus and McFeely quips feel so funny in Marvel movies is gone now that it's within a generic action movie.

But what of the action? "The Gray Man" is Netflix's most expensive movie ever, and it shows in some of the fairly impressive set pieces. The car chases are full of tactile, nail-biting stunts, the action scenes explosive, and the Russo brothers are the latest filmmakers to try their hand at replicating the heights of that "Dark Knight" Hong Kong fight scene. But when it comes to the hand-to-hand fights, there's no extra oomph that you see in the best of Hollywood's action flicks — just the typical fast cuts and shaky camera that has been the standard for the past few decades.

"The Gray Man" exists "in the gray" of Hollywood action movies — not jaw-droppingly incredibly, not astoundingly bad, just there. It's a movie that's made to be half-watched on Netflix while scrolling on your phone. Its greatest disappointment is that it knows what it has — Gosling, a great cast, a lot of money — and it still ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10