Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writer: Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Dhanush, Ana De Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, Regé-Jean Page
The centerpiece of The Gray Man is an action sequence that lasts roughly nine minutes. The Gray Man, also known as Courtland Gentry, also known as Sierra Six, is handcuffed to a stone bench in Prague. Various crews of killers, cops and even a SWAT team have arrived. Bullets, bombs, assault weapons are firing away. The action, which eventually moves to a running city tram is elaborate, exquisitely-staged and incredibly, even has a touch of comedy ladled in. It’s peak Russo Brothers, the directors who turned super-sized popcorn entertainment into a fine art with two Captain America movies and Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. According to media reports, The Gray Man cost $200 million and is Netflix’s most expensive movie to date. A lot of that money went into choreographing mayhem.
The Gray Man, based on a 2009 novel by Mark Greaney, isn’t startlingly original. Like in the Jason Bourne franchise, here too we have a world-class assassin with contentious connections to the CIA. Like in James Bond movies, the plot globe-trots — the film starts in Bangkok, but passes through Baku, Monaco, Vienna, Turkey before eventually climaxing in Croatia. Like many successful onscreen operatives, Gray Man combines incredibly sophisticated combat skills with keen intelligence and despite the brutal occupation, a strong sense of morality. This is not a man who will let a child die. He’s a killer with an abiding sense of honour.
The Russo Brothers and their longtime writing partners, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, take these movie spy traditions and ramp up the adrenalin to the power of 11. The Gray Man has nine set-piece action sequences — or at least that’s what Joe Russo has said in interviews. I was too busy keeping track of who is killing whom to count. The opening sequence, set in Bangkok on New Year’s eve, is jaw-dropping in its beauty. The film has been shot by Stephen F. Windon who makes dazzling use of the celebratory fireworks and fanfare. These sequences aren’t tethered in logic – at one point, a gun is thrown away only so we can watch Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans switch to hand-to-hand combat. And while Gosling gets hurt – in one scene, a knife is plunged into his hand – he’s never wounded enough to stop fighting.
But you can’t be a stickler for rationality here. The Gray Man belongs to what KGF director Prashanth Neel described as “anti-gravity cinema”. The laws of physics don’t apply. The pleasure is in watching alluring men and women commit outlandish acts of violence with minimal consequences. This is a film brimming with charismatic actors — including Ana de Armas, Regé-Jean Page, Billy Bob Thornton, Wagner Moura, Julia Butters — the scene stealer from Once Upon a time in Hollywood — and our very own Dhanush, who is referred to as “my sexy Tamil friend”. What’s not to like?
Dhanush brings to the film sleek, mostly silent charm, but the stand-out is Evans in the most un-Captain America role that the Russos could possibly construct for him. Evans is Lloyd Hansen, a psychopathic contract killer, who is hired to hunt down Gentry after Gentry discovers some dirty CIA secrets. Lloyd has “a higher kill count than the entire Mossad.” He also has too-snug trousers and a Seventies-inspired moustache, also dubbed the “TrashStache” — Netflix is selling replicas of it for $15. Lloyd looks like a clean-scrubbed salesman, but he’s given to quoting German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and pulling out nails with a plier when information is not forthcoming. Evans makes Lloyd’s nastiness fearsome, but also funny. In one scene, he’s applying lip balm in the background. In another, he refers to Gentry as a Ken Doll. Which may or may not be a reference to the upcoming live-action Barbie movie, in which Gosling plays exactly that.
But here, Gosling has the less flamboyant part. Gentry is more muted. He’s also a killer but without Lloyd’s bloodthirst. This is an assassin with Sisyphus tattooed on his hand, which in a low-IQ film like this, becomes an unintentionally hilarious detail. Like the figure from Greek mythology, Gentry is also forced to repeat his murderous actions with little hope of an exit or relief. He also consistently chews gum and brings to his job, baggage from his tough childhood and a quiet sense of humor. At one point, when someone saves his life, he sheepishly admits that his ego is a little bruised.
The Russos, Marcus and McFeely want to root the action in emotion. But the connective tissue between the set-pieces is painfully thin. The characters and motivations – Gentry must rescue a young girl with a medical ailment – have more than a touch of cliché about them. But we’re not here for depth. We’re here for what Mumbaiwallas call time-pass, and mostly, The Gray Man delivers that.
News reports affirm that this film is likely to be the first in a franchise. And that once upon a time, Charlize Theron was considered for the lead role. I hope somewhere down the line, she makes an entry.