Somewhere during the tediously long shootout that more or less climaxes Joe and Anthony Russo’s uneven espionage actioner The Gray Man (★★☆☆☆), it hit me that I couldn’t exactly recall the name of the movie’s hero, played by Ryan Gosling. Was it Cord, or Cole? It’s not that it never came up, but somehow, his name — Court Gentry, as it turns out — simply didn’t register.
It also didn’t seem to matter, both because Court had intentionally become a ghost, a CIA operative known only as Sierra Six, and because Gosling’s bland take on the trained assassin with “a very particular set of skills” à la Taken feels like it could have been played by any number of A-list actors.
That’s so not the case with Six’s ruthless nemesis Lloyd Hansen, a name repeated often, with fear or infuriation, and a villain personified with an oddball mix of glee and cruelty by erstwhile Captain America, Chris Evans.
Between two Avengers films and two Captain America sequels, the Russo’s have banked billions at the box office on the back of Evans’ preternaturally upstanding Marvel hero. Here, they clearly delight in pushing their all-American boy scout to the dark side as craven mercenary Hansen, tasked with recovering the movie’s mid-stakes MacGuffin, a micro memory card, by any means necessary.
Evans also clearly delights in twisting his smirking bonhomie into Lloyd’s chuckle-faced nastiness. This guy will gladly kill, kidnap, and torture Six, or anyone else in his path, to complete the mission. At one point, he impulsively kicks somebody in the face for no good reason, and it’s actually hilarious.
That’s charisma, and Evans pours it on in service of this asshole, whose wardrobe of fitted polos over ankle-length khakis and leather slip-ons screams “jerk.” Six even calls him out for his “trash-stache,” the piéce de résistance of Lloyd’s smarmy allure.
For better or worse, Lloyd is the most original and enjoyable component in this adaptation of Mark Greaney’s eponymous novel, the first in a series of 12 books (so far). Otherwise, The Gray Man sets up to be a disappointingly conventional spy vs. spy tale, with no intriguing spin on the agent-on-the-run plot, and a few leaden performances, like Regé-Jean Page’s unconvincing CIA chief, that weigh the whole thing down.
The high-gloss, B-movie action is occasionally livened by yet another scintillating supporting turn from Ana de Armas, as Dani Miranda, a crack CIA agent seemingly on Six’s side.
And Julia Butters — remarkable as the precocious kid actress who brought Leo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton to tears in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — also makes a strong impression in the thankless role of innocent young pawn Claire, abducted by Lloyd to force Six’s hand.
The abduction leads to a daring rescue from a palace in Croatia, which gives way to a tense, well-edited chase sequence, probably the movie’s tightest action set-piece. Filming around the globe, in France, L.A., the Czech Republic, Thailand, Croatia, Austria, and Azerbaijan (the $200-million budget definitely shows up onscreen), the Russo’s stage several gunfights, explosions, and lengthy hand-to-hand battles, but it all tends to look familiar.
Working with cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, who’s shot several films in the Fast & Furious franchise, they do come up with moments of exhilarating camerawork, thanks to drones and camera cranes that soar and tumble all over the place.
The storytelling doesn’t take off, though, and leaves several threads dangling. The script drops hints of a Big Bad who’s pulling strings but remains in the shadows, and presumably waiting for a sequel to reveal themselves. That wait might be endless, so it’s too bad the filmmakers didn’t pack in all the juicy reveals and secret identities they could to make this film more interesting.
The Gray Man is in select U.S. theaters on July 15, and streaming on Netflix starting July 22. Visit www.netflix.com.
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