‘The Gray Man’ movie review: The Russo brothers, Dhanush team up to make a ‘masala’ movie that sometimes work

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A still from ‘The Gray Man’

A still from ‘The Gray Man’ | Photo Credit: Netflix

The Russo brothers’ supposed answer to the Bond franchise is a product of popcorn entertainment that is defined by giving the audience want they want and that’s just it

The real challenge for Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans to portray their respective hypermasculine characters, Six and Llyod Hansen, must have been to sport a moustache (Ryan’s character calls it “trash-stache”) and beard. Ryan with a beard and Chris with that awkward moustache try very hard to sell their persona; Sierra Six, a loner who flexes his masculinity to save the day, and Lloyd Hansen as a megalomaniac toxic male. “Why wouldn’t you give me a loaded gun?” asks Ana de Armas’ Dani Miranda to Six in one scene. 

A nameless character, Ryan Gosling is hired by Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) as part of CIA’s Sierra programme, that essentially recruits convicted killers with a past, allowing them to secretly work for the agency as skilled assassins. Therefore, their “freedom” that they get is controlled. Their job is to execute what the agency wants and to essentially function as programmed robots. Speaking of which, Ryan especially with the reputation of having a poker face, is really good as an unsentimental, quasi-Bond; he jokes that “007 is taken”. 

In the prelude, when Fitzroy asks Six to work for the agency as if doing him a favour, it is hard not to be reminded of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, where Leonard DiCaprio is put through a similar situation, wherein he remains a ghost in the larger scheme of things within the system. But The Gray Man isn’t interested in telling the parallel story of Six and Llyod Hansen, unlike The Departed. It remains regimentally committed to the regular outlandish action scenes, racy cars, grand set pieces and glittering props. But you have to give it to the Russo Brothers. They know their stuff. The very first action sequence that comes through after a mission gone awry, is when sparks fly… quite literally.

Six is tasked to execute an unknown man, who is later revealed to be Sierra Four, his former colleague who has uncovered secrets about the agency and their covert operations. Six is hunted down by Llyod Hansen, also his former colleague, and his team of international assassins. But because The Gray Man stars Ryan Gosling as the lead character, he has to operate with conscience (the thread involving Fitzroy’s nice Claire and Six reminds you of Taxi Driver, where Six seems to get his purpose in life through Claire. I know, it is too much reading between the lines).

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The Gray Man

Cast: Chris Evans, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Dhanush and Rege-Jean Page

Director: Joseph and Anthony Russo

Duration: 129 minutes

Storyline: When a shadowy CIA agent uncovers damning agency secrets, he’s hunted across the globe by a sociopathic rogue operative who’s put a bounty on his head

The Gray Man isn’t really about the plot, nor is it about the screenplay. The driving force of the film is action and that’s just it. There is no directorial finesse, except for when the Russo brothers take us on an invigorating ride, moving seamlessly from one big stunt sequence to another; one big set piece to another, and one foreign location to another.

The Russos seem to primarily operate on a success formula they devised through the Marvel franchise. And like in those films, we get a globe-trotting actioner wherein characters are imagined as larger-than-life. The Gray Man opens in Florida and goes to Bangkok, Baku, Prague and so on, and all the characters get a hero’s entry, especially Dhanush as Avik San. 

There is a strong flavour for humour that briefly works. Some of these moments are extremely boring at times, when Chris Evans comes across as wanting to be taken seriously. He tries so hard to be a cool, comic villain that you actually see him trying.

Now that it has been established that The Gray Man is more about popcorn entertainment and less about storytelling, it is important that Russo brothers be credited for what they are: filmmakers who have grand ideas and who can think and execute explosive set pieces (with excellent camera work by Stephen F Windon). Made on a staggering budget of $200 million, the film is packed with absurd stunts that come one after the other, that you wish they were spaced out. Although the stunt scenes are thrilling, you don’t get to register and relish some of it.

The problem with The Gray Man is that the Russos are more concerned about rushing through it than telling a story in an organic manner.

There are two excellent moments featuring Ryan Gosling. The first one is where he narrates a parable about a man carrying a huge-ass rock on his shoulders, trying to make it to the top of the hill. In essence, the story is a metaphor on Ryan Gosling’s reality. But it is so gentle and warm and makes him a human that you wish there were more such delicate, little moments. The second is when Ryan (Six) and Chris (Lloyd) fight it out in the climax, and the former is reminded of a traumatic episode from the past, that sort of accentuates his anger. The Russos use Six’s childhood trauma in a manipulative manner. But they also raise critical questions of what determines a ‘crime’.

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During the promotions of The Gray Man, the Russo brothers said they were looking at videos for inspiration for fight choreography. Now we don’t know which Indian film they saw and took inspiration from, but there is an outlandish scene where someone dies by setting a gas stove on fire. That is not the only “Indian” thing to do. An unsentimental Ryan Gosling becomes somewhat of a father figure. Dhanush’s Avik San is supposed to be a ruthless assassin as a character. He gets a “nallavana kettavana” moment towards the end, where he gets a redemptive arc, and you go, “What the hell!” Is The Gray Man a full acknowledgement of the Indian masala genre?

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