The Russo brothers are aces at making superhero movies. They need more practice with superspies.
With “The Gray Man” (★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters, streaming on Netflix July 22), directors Joe and Anthony Russo offer up an action-packed but wobbly and familiar version of a Bourne or Bond flick. This adaptation of Mark Greaney’s novel is tonally inconsistent and narratively thin (so your “Mission: Impossible” franchise is safe, Tom Cruise). If nothing else, though, the stylish and slick thriller brings sass to the secret agent genre, and there are worse things than watching an evil Chris Evans try to murder Ryan Gosling for two hours.
Eighteen years ago when he was an incarcerated youngster, Court Gentry (Gosling) was recruited by Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) to kill people for the CIA. Now known as Six, the guy has become renowned for his Black Ops expertise and his latest mission finds him on assassination duty in Bangkok.
However, the target happens to be a member of Six’s secretive unit, and Six comes into possession of a drive full of dirty secrets that haughty CIA boss Denny Carmichael (“Bridgerton” breakout Regé-Jean Page) doesn’t want to get out.
Enter Lloyd Hansen (Evans). A sociopathic and vicious CIA contractor with a porn-stache and a never-ending array of tacky polo shirts, Lloyd is tasked by Carmichael to “locate and destroy” Six and retrieve the drive. The protagonist gets help on the run from fellow agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), who saves his butt many times, and the emotional stakes are raised when Six finds out Lloyd has also captured not only Fitzroy but also the handler’s young niece (Julia Butters).
The Russos again team with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley – the brain trust responsible for the best “Captain America” movies as well as “Avengers: Endgame.” So what happened here? Those films came in with existing personalities, and the character development of “Gray Man” just isn’t there. Super-cool explosions, crazy chases and vicious hand-to-hand combat only go so far, though the actors – especially de Armas and Indian action star Dhanush, as an antagonist with a conscience – do what they can with their archetypal roles.
The subplot about the niece seems solely focused to flesh out Gosling’s stoic, deadpanning character, with mixed results – mainly, it just slows down the momentum of the fight scenes and verbal sparring. The over-the-top shoot-’em-ups and wanton destruction – usually with Six falling or jumping off something – spill from Thailand nightlife to the streets of Prague, with stops in Vienna, Croatia and Berlin, but the settings all feel the same and don’t add much globetrotting spectacle.
In their post-Marvel work, the Russos have notably given their superhero stars room to stretch. Last year’s ambitious “Cherry” allowed Tom Holland to flex some dramatic muscles beyond getting in a Spider-Man suit, and “The Gray Man” lets Evans deliciously explore his wicked side. Yes, he is the best of the “Chrises,” and him doing a complete 180 from virtuous Captain America proves that once again: Lloyd yells at underlings, goes punch for punch and snark for snark with Gosling, and absolutely owns a plethora of clever zingers like, “If you want to make an omelet, you gotta kill some people.”
If you’re craving an overblown action movie, “The Gray Man” is probably worth a stream for him alone, a devilish villain playing an otherwise forgettable spy game.