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The Gray Man review – fun but flimsy slice of summer entertainment

Ryan Gosling and a scene-stealing Chris Evans star in a Russo brothers spy thriller made of thrilling action but little personality

Given that Mark Greaney’s Gray Man novel series falls under the rich tradition of “airport literature,” unfussy action books designed to be picked up and put down at regular intervals across the course of a holiday, there really couldn’t be a better place for a film adaptation than Netflix. After all, the streaming house is the premiere home of what one could call the “airport movie,” and The Gray Man is no exception, its two hour runtime split relatively neatly into 20 minute chapters, each either punctuated or bookended by an explosive set-piece. It’s a recipe that pretty much guarantees entertainment, though at the expense of any real personality.

Ryan Gosling returns to screens after a four-year hiatus as the improbably but amusingly named Courtland Gentry, also known by his codename of Sierra Six, a deadly deniable operative working for the CIA. He’s a mix of Bond, Bourne, and Ethan Hunt, though never as memorable or iconic as any of those big names, getting into fist-fights and tram-wrecks across Europe and Asia until he’s caught up, inevitably, in a big conspiracy in which he’s the fall guy. After an assassination in Thailand goes wrong and the target gifts Gentry with a MacGuffin-y drive containing dangerous Agency secrets, Gentry finds the CIA gunning for him, bringing in notoriously nasty freelancer Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to take the elusive Gentry down.

Gosling and Evans are obviously the big draws here, though it’s Evans who ends up stealing the show. Gosling is never less than watchable, of course, but (aside from a truly remarkable bulk-up) he’s not bringing his A-game here, while Evans goes from 0-100 really fast and then never slows down. Hansen is, in a weirdly refreshing way, just a reprehensible piece of shit. In an era of blockbuster villains who are often either misguided or lovable rogues or in possession of a magnificent wit, Hansen is just nasty and Evans is a blast to watch, tearing down his wholesome Captain America façade as a misogynistic sadist that you can’t wait to see beaten down.

He adds much-needed flavour to an otherwise rather generic story of spies and cover-ups in which motivations are hazy and exposition is mostly dead weight. As Gentry flees from Hansen and his team, they bounce across various iconic locales, but none have the sense of place that you’d find in a Bond or Bourne entry or serve as vehicles for the kind of staggering stuntwork that has made Mission: Impossible the current blockbuster series to beat. Directors the Russo Brothers, alongside their regular MCU writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, mostly just treat the plot and its characters as an excuse to move between big action beats.

It’s a shame that a supporting cast including Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood prodigy Julia Butters feels so wasted – though it is interesting to see Rege-Jean Page basically audition for the Bond role by playing a Bond villain here – but the set-pieces do mostly make up for it. Even with some ugly visuals (a mostly CG fistfight during an aeroplane freefall is especially dismal), the combat here is crunchy and satisfying. It’s always fun to watch a bunch of CIA goons get outsmarted and shot down by a hyper-competent hero, and The Gray Man offers those thrills in spades.

Whether it’s a gunfight atop a speeding train captured by Ambulance-esque manic drone footage or a bazooka-fronted assault on a villainous compound, the Russos’ strengths in fight choreography and grandiose destruction hold true in a non-superpowered context. Gosling, Evans, and Armas all convince as John Wick-style shadowy killing machines (Armas herself is now prepping to star in a John Wick spinoff, for which The Gray Man serves as a pretty decent advert), and there is a significant enough body count to convince you of the high stakes at play. You won’t remember The Gray Man’s story long after the credits roll, but I don’t think you’re really meant to – like most undemanding summer holiday entertainment, it’s all about the fun in the moment and leaving you just hungry enough for next year’s instalment.

The Gray Man is now in UK cinemas and will released on Netflix on 22 July.

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