“The Gray Man’s” biggest muscle flex doesn’t come from Ryan Gosling or Chris Evans (not that they’re slackers), but rather the overall casting, throwing in Ana de Armas after her butt-kicking Bond role as well as Regé-Jean Page post-“Bridgerton,” Jessica Henwick (“The Matrix”) and Indian star Dhanush. The script, alas, is a bit of a 98-pound weakling, but given the escapist demands probably sufficient to get the job done.
Indeed, “Gray Man” comes from the “Red Notice” school of loud if not-all-that-colorful Netflix action movies, where casting, social-media clout and superhero cred in the key cast makes the quality basically irrelevant. Never mind the movie, the poster alone, including “Avengers” directors the Russo brothers, practically ensures astronomical “minutes viewed” numbers.
Even less than “Red,” though, “Gray Man” doesn’t really measure up to the hype, which includes the obligatory advance theatrical release to grease the wheels for its streaming assault.
Based on the book series, the film serves as the latest iteration of the Bond-Bourne genre, but even more than most the spy-versus-spy shenanigans plays like an excuse for the elaborate action sequences and insane stunt work, which produce a few genuine highlights but also yield gradually diminishing returns, especially down the home stretch.
Whether Gosling wants a future as the shadowy CIA assassination known only as Six remains to be seen (he jokes that 007 was already taken), but this represents a modest if perhaps inevitable addition to his eclectic resume. As if to punctuate the point, Evans’ character derisively refers to him as a “Ken doll,” a sly reference to his next foray into the recesses of franchise moviemaking.
Gosling’s Court Gentry gets plucked out of prison, naturally, to kill for the CIA, operating in a gray realm that, to quote the old song, gives him a number and takes away his name. Yet Six’s latest mission brings him possession of information that makes him dangerous to those above him, threatening everyone from his colleague on that operation (De Armas) to the now-retired handler (Billy Bob Thornton) who recruited him.
Taking out Six, however, is going to require some big guns, which explains why those seeking to kill him enlist Lloyd Hansen (Evans), a sociopathic contract killer who boasts “I can kill anybody” – a claim Six will put to the test – and cares little about collateral damage or keeping “covert” actions the least bit secret, to an almost-comical degree.
The chase carries the principals all over the globe, and just to up the ante, throws in an imperiled kid with a heart condition (Julia Butters, already developing quite a resume after “Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood”) to give Six something to fight for beyond himself.
The screenplay (credited to co-director Joe Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) does include some sly humor, and Evans in particular appears to be relishing villainous rogues after his squeaky-clean, star-spangled image. Even so, a torture sequence to demonstrate how bad he is winds up feeling somewhat gratuitous.
Ultimately, “The Gray Man” is an unintentionally appropriate title to describe a movie that exists within such a narrow band of the cinematic spectrum. While a step up over the Russos’ last streaming effort, the bleak “Cherry,” it’s the equivalent of an old-time “B” movie with an A-level cast and budget.
At one point, Six dismisses the risks and punishment he endures by saying, “Just another Thursday.” While “Gray Man” isn’t quite that mundane, in the bigger scheme of Netflix’s adventures in blockbuster filmmaking, it does feel like just another action movie.
“The Gray Man” premieres in select US theaters on July 15 and July 22 on Netflix. It’s rated PG-13.