‘The Gray Man’ movie review: The Russos establish a new cinematic universe, but will anything top Chris Evans’ trash ‘stache?

Our Gray Man movie review takes an in-depth look at Netflix’s most expensive film to date, directed by the Russo Brothers and starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, and Ana de Armas. Does it live up to the hype? Spoilers ahead.

If you know me at all, you won’t be the least bit surprised to learn The Gray Man was at the top of my list of most anticipated movies to come out this year. I’m an action movie aficionado, and with this film being directed by the Russo Brothers, it has a bit of that Captain America: Winter Soldier vibe that I love.

Even if that weren’t the case, the cast alone would be worth tuning in for. Ryan Gosling is always a solid bet to make, and as such a versatile actor, I knew he would be able to carry this movie easily enough, despite it being his first action role. I figured his character, Sierra Six, would be the strong and silent type, and yet he was surprisingly cheeky. He got plenty of laughs from me, and most of them were delightfully unexpected. We can thank Gosling for his delivery, but long-time Russo collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely undoubtedly deserve accolades for the script as well.

But it wasn’t just laughs that made him an interesting character, and I want time out of this Gray Man movie review to talk about one of the most important aspects of this film. Six’s story is a tragic one: At 15 years old, he killed his abusive father in order to save his brother’s life. He thought it a rather heroic endeavor, but the jury did not. By the time Fitzroy found him, he’d spent a good portion of his young life in prison. But that’s just what Fitz was looking for, and Six ended up being one of Sierra’s most valuable assets.

In fact, Six’s response to his father’s abuse is a thread woven throughout the movie—sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. During a flashback, we see how Six’s father burned him with a cigarette lighter, saying, “Fight through the fear. Fight through the pain. You master that, and you’ll never lose again, son.” You’ll notice that no matter what happens to Six, he hardly reacts—not when he jumps from a moving train nor when Lone Wolf stabs him in the side with a pair of scissors. This is especially evident in the final confrontation with Lloyd, which is devoid of the usual adrenaline-fueled soundtrack heard in the other action sequences. You can hear the splash of the water and the slash of the knife, but it isn’t until the final seconds that the music swells to mark the conclusion of the scene. During the fight, no matter how many times Six is sliced and stabbed, he does not make a sound, which is in stark contrast to Lloyd’s grunts and over-the-top reactions. It is never directly pointed out, yet Six’s silence has an eerie effect on the viewer. In a sickening twist of fate, his father prepared him for this life: The worst parts of his childhood have ultimately become his greatest strength as an adult. It’s a reminder that movies like The Gray Man aren’t just about car chases and flashy explosions; they contain substance that offer insight into the psyche of complex characters such as Six.

Related: Mark Greaney discusses ‘The Gray Man’ movie, returning to Jack Ryan, and his latest book

As good as Gosling is, however, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tune in specifically to see Chris Evans step wholeheartedly into his villain era. Sure, he dipped his toes into the water as Ransom Drysdale in Knives Out, but Lloyd Hansen could dance circles around old Hugh. The trash ‘stache does a lot of the heavy lifting—there’s just something about it that instantly turns him from Good Old American Boy into Raging Douchebag—but Evans clearly had a lot of fun in this role. Lloyd is undoubtedly an over-the-top character, but because both Evans and the script embrace that, it doesn’t take you out of the movie. It reminds me a bit of Jensen in The Losers, and I would not be mad if we got to see Evans embody this kind of energy more frequently in his future roles. Yeah, he makes a great stoic hero, but I’d rather see him as a completely unhinged psychopath.

Joining Evans is one of his Knives Out castmates, Ana de Armas, playing CIA Agent Dani Miranda. As with most female roles in a huge action-packed movie, I was worried she’d be relegated to sidekick or damsel in distress, but neither was the case. Dani can hold her own with any of the guys, and she goes toe to toe with several of them. I expected the stereotypical scene where the opposing female characters square off against each other, and was happy when it never happened. At one point, Six complains about how it would be nice if he got to save her once in a while, and I have to say that was another major highlight I knew I’d have to include in my Gray Man movie review. Her presence in the film didn’t feel forced—she’s got her own reasons for helping him, her own life outside of this, and her own goals—and it didn’t make Six appear any less capable or competent. The movie simply wouldn’t have been the same without Dani, and Six certainly wouldn’t have completed his mission.

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It’s hard to deny that Evans is the star of the show here, but his character is far from the one pulling strings. Regé-Jean Page’s Carmichael is an intelligent and imposing antagonist, though he doesn’t have hardly any of Lloyd’s bite. I was more intrigued by the idea of someone using him as a puppet than whatever his ultimate goals were. It’s clear he stayed one step ahead of his competition thus far, though he’s likely met his match with Six. Still, I was glad he wasn’t down and out by the end of the movie because it keeps some of the mystery alive.

His partner in crime, Suzanne Brewer, played by Jessica Henwick, was slightly more interesting, as she at least had morals and found herself in a difficult position she couldn’t control. Carmichael blamed the entire Sierra situation on her, and she was forced to babysit the unsittable Lloyd Hansen. By the end of the film, she had certainly left her morals at the door, but the real tragedy is that Henwick—a phenomenal action star in her own right—was pretty much relegated to wearing a business suit and yelling about how crazy Lloyd was. She played her part perfectly, but I hope the Gray Man sequel lets her unleash her own fighting skills in some capacity. I’ll be content if this is a setup to a meatier role in the second film.

Alfre Woodard as Margaret Cahill, Billy Bob Thornton as Fitzroy, and Julia Butters as Claire were all excellent in their roles as supporting actors. Woodard got the least amount of screen time, but she always makes her presence known, and her brief appearance still managed to make a huge impact. Thornton—who I consistently underestimate as an actor, much to my own detriment—fulfilled the mentor role with both strength and compassion. He’s a wholly likeable character, and I was happy to see the script give him a heroic death rather than turn him into a traitor (unlike a certain someone in Netflix’s other action-packed movie).

Cahill, Fitzroy, and Six are all connected through their mutual love for Claire, Fitzroy’s niece. She lost her parents and has dealt with a heart condition her whole life, so no one could blame her for being a somewhat miserable kid who finds pleasure in listening to old records at max volume. I was hoping Fitz or Six would’ve trained her at some point (if not in combat, then in some sort of escape technique), considering she would always be their greatest weakness, but I still enjoyed her character—or, more truthfully, her relationship with Six. Ever serious, Six isn’t happy when he’s relegated to babysitting duty, but these two bring out the best in each other, and I’m excited to see what happens to Claire now that Six is the only one she has left.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to talk about Avik San, aka Lone Wolf, played by Dhanush. Having been the sole survivor of the ambush in Prague, Lone Wolf is also the only one who manages to steal back the evidence against Carmichael. His fight scenes with Six and Dani are unlike anything else in the movie, and the way he moves is smooth, like that of a dancer. It is languid and graceful and full of power and pizazz. Equal parts strength and showmanship. He is clearly capable, but we don’t learn much about him until the end when he’s squaring off against Dani for a second time. He gains the upper hand, only to break off the fight and return the evidence to her, claiming that Lloyd and his people are not honorable. And then he walks away.

It’s a powerful—if somewhat convenient—moment, and in two lines, we learn more about this character than we have in the entire film. He was working with Lloyd for the money, but he does draw the line at imprisoning and threatening to torture a young girl (good to know). I feel as though this character is poised on a cliff, ready to jump into a new chapter of his life. The same article that spoke of a sequel also mentioned a Gray Man spinoff, and it feels as though Lone Wolf could be the target of that film (especially if you add in this comment to Insider). If it is, count me in because I want to know all I can about this character and where he’s going next.

All of this is to say that the characters in Gray Man stand out more than the plot. Which, if I’m being honest here in my Gray Man movie review, is fine by me. The story hits the usual markers for this type of film—man who works for secret agency is put on the chopping block, mentor tries to bail him out and dies in the process, young child is kidnapped as leverage, and at the end of the day, there’s a showdown in which the hero overcomes the villain.

I don’t necessarily tune into action films for the plot; I want to be dazzled by the fight choreography. There were some standout scenes here, though fewer than some other heavy hitters from the past couple years. Lloyd does a killer knife flip at one point that feels reminiscent of Bucky’s from Winter Soldier, and the Russos have once again proven they can handle the tiniest details along with the biggest sets. There are a lot of moving parts in The Gray Man, and each action sequence highlights different characters, numerous techniques, and various outside elements. I’ve already stated in this Gray Man movie review how much I loved the fight with Lone Wolf, but the opening conflict with the fireworks certainly shouldn’t be ignored.

Aiding the film’s choreography is, as always, the cinematography, which keeps us close to the action. in addition to a few surprising (and well-received) choices to aid in that goal, the Russos used a drone to enhance the viewing experience. Most of these shots were high above the various cities used as backdrops in this film—Vienna, Prague, Croatia, etc.—but they were also blended with more intimate shots, like the introduction to the hospital scene, to give the entire sequence a more kinetic feel. And boy did it work. Say what you want about this movie, but the Russos found a way to make this film stand out from the crowd on a technical level, and I am beyond excited with the result.

Both Netflix and the Russos want to build a Gray Man cinematic universe, much to my intrigue. This first film establishes some major characters and sets a precedence for what’s to come. Like Reacher and Ryan, there is no shortage of stories that could be told about Sierra Six, and given that this movie sets him off in a new direction, there’s plenty more to come. It’ll be hard to top Evans’ villain, but I have faith that the Russos will find new ways to entertain us. They haven’t let me down thus far.

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