The Gray Man

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In the opening scene of The Gray Man (2022), Billy Bob Thornton’s CIA handler says to Ryan Gosling’s con and soon to be secret agent “I get it, you’re glib”, thus establishing the depth of all the characterization in the Russo Brother’s latest picture. Having excelled at making aesthetically bankrupt films for Marvel/Disney, the Russo brothers Anthony and Joe have moved on to make aesthetically bankrupt spy movies for the streaming giant Netflix. The Gray Man aspires to cross The Dirty Dozen (1967) with The Bourne Identity (2002) but realizes little more than the animated introductions to different levels on the Nintendo 64 version of The World Is Not Enough video game.

Without the prefab characters of superhero comics to draw viewers into their two-dimensional spectacle the Russo brothers have to rely on their own creativity to create original characters in an original world. To do this they rely on a steadfast and true plot about a super top secret agent named Six (Gosling) who, with the help of a not so secret CIA agent named Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), must go rogue to reveal systemic corruption in the agency and battle a psychopath named Lloyd (Chris Evans). It’s boiler plate stuff and the Russos seem to know it, which is why they’ve attempted to imbue the film with some knock-off Shane Black wit and charm.

All of this is superficial in The Gray Man. Underneath these tried and true genre tropes is a paradox of masculine attitudes. Six represents the noble, ideal response to a toxically masculine up bringing, complete with abuse. Six’s nemesis Lloyd is toxic masculinity incarnate. When the two clash they slug it out in a fountain until Agent Brewer (Jessica Henwick) shoots Lloyd dead, stopping the fight, and scolding the pair for being too masculine. Essentially the Russos are admitting their shame in peddling this kind of masculinist escapism to the public. A feminist take on this type of white knuckle action blockbuster is always welcome, but this kind of self-awareness stinks of avoidance of the political issue rather than a gender oriented genre revision.

Ironically The Gray Man contains an easier, classier solution to purifying the spy movie of its traditionally masculinist attitudes in the form of Ana de Armas’ character. As was the case with No Time To Die (2021), de Armas steals every scene she is in as if she were campaigning to be the lead of the film. Ana de Armas did, however, benefit from superior directing in her Bond outing, but she’s nonetheless a total badass in The Gray Man. In a perfect world she would have played Six and Gosling, in true The Nice Guys (2026) fashion, would have played the sidekick. Coincidentally, No Time To Die struggled with the same issues of sexual politics as The Gray Man.

For Ana de Armas The Gray Man is a series of reunions as she chews the scenery with Gosling (Blade Runner 2049) and Chris Evans (Knives Out). Perhaps this is why the acting is the best part of the movie. Even with very little to work with, de Armas, Gosling and, to some extent, Evans are compulsively watchable. Since this looks like it’s just the first film in another Russo brothers franchise of bland blockbusters, it’s more than likely that Gosling and de Armas will re-team again.