Sometimes a title just doesn’t help a movie.
Not that directors Anthony and Joe Russo had much choice in titling “The Gray Man,” their new Netflix spy thriller starring Ryan Gosling — they’re adapting the novel of the same name, about a shadowy CIA assassin on the run. Still, it’s hard not to think of the title when contemplating the overall effect of a film that spares no expense to entertain, yet ends up feeling a little aimless, perplexingly bland, and — what’s the word we’re looking for? Oh yes. Gray.
This is a bit of a shame when you’re spending a reported $200 million. And it’s not that we can’t see where the money went. First of all Gosling, even with his charisma deliberately hampered here — call it the “graying” process — is still worth watching. But also, rarely has global mayhem seemed quite so luxurious as in this venture, which takes us from Bangkok to Baku, from Vienna to Croatia to Prague to France’s stunning Chateau de Chantilly, from winding cobblestone streets to grand castles and up to the skies, too — all in chase of one man.
The action is certainly impressive. Let’s take just one scene the Russos have dubbed a “movie within a movie” — and maybe they weren’t referring to the budget, but this shootout reportedly cost $40 million. In a picturesque Prague square, Gosling’s character remains handcuffed to a bench — rather calmly, given the circumstances — as he confronts waves upon waves of assassins (and perhaps all available film extras and vehicles on the European continent.)
Then there’s the midair scene where Gosling battles attackers who suddenly get orders to kill him mid-flight, leading to a sequence involving fires and explosions and parachuting and anything else you can imagine. If you’re like me, you may start to wonder: Will this costly manhunt reach the moon? I mean, we know Gosling has experience landing on the lunar surface — also calmly. And what’s one more location shoot?
But this isn’t “First Man,” this is GRAY man. “You’d exist in the gray,” CIA handler Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) tells Gosling’s character, then a young prison inmate looking at decades in a cell for murder, in a flashback. He’ll win a get-out-of-jail-free card if he’ll agree to the whole covert assassin thing.
Now it’s 18 years later and Sierra Six, or Six for short (because 007 was taken, he quips) is on the job. He’s in Bangkok, along with helper Dani (Ana de Armas, appealing but underused) to kill someone at a New Year’s bash, directed remotely by his current boss, Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page of “Bridgerton,” sadly given a cardboard role here, as is Jessica Henwick as his colleague). He’s about to use his enormous weapon when he notices a small child nearby. “Cleared for collateral,” he’s told. But Six won’t take the risk, and ends up making the kill the old-fashioned way.
But before the man expires, he informs Six he’s actually on the same team, and hands him a drive with compromising information about their colleagues. “You’re probably next,” he says.
Now Six is on the run. He’s good at escaping (witness the park bench, and the airplane.) Enter LLoyd Hansen, the most sadistic of freelance killers, whom we meet while torturing someone. Lloyd is such a meanie even the CIA didn’t want him fulltime, but they need him now. Everything’s extreme about Lloyd, starting with his mustache. Evans has fun being fiendish, and gets a few good lines along with some real clunkers, one of the catchier being: “You wanna make an omelet? You gotta kill some people.” But honestly, the torture scenes … did we need that? Really?
Meanwhile, we learn through another flashback that Six has a close relationship with Fitzroy’s young niece, Claire (the lovely 13-year-old Julia Butters from “Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood.”) Claire, who’s lost her parents, has a heart problem and needs a pacemaker — an important plot point.
Other notable supporting players include Alfre Woodard in a too-brief turn as a key Six ally and Dhanush as another expert killer called in for help. The expressive Butters gives, though, the most empathetic performance — to be fair, nobody else is fully redeemable, no matter what fancy diploma they have (“We all went to Harvard together” is a line the university’s PR team might want to immediately protest.)
And yes, Gosling’s Six is attached to Claire, but the man’s an assassin for hire, so it’s hard to root for him. And unlike the increasingly superhuman Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible,” a franchise this movie perhaps seeks to emulate, we don’t even get to root for Gosling in a heroic battle against the dark force of aging — he’s two decades younger than Cruise.
Speaking of looking good, which Gosling still can’t help but do, there’s a Ken Doll reference here — perhaps a nod to his upcoming turn in the new Barbie film. If you catch it, you may find yourself imagining what he’ll look like in blond hair and a goofy grin.
To paraphrase The Muppets, it’s not easy being gray.
“The Gray Man,” a Netflix release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for intense sequences of strong violence, and strong language. “ Running time: 126 minutes. Two stars out of four.