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Anthony and Joe Russo’s The Gray Man, starring Ryan Gosling and 10,000 bullets, is not a superhero film, but it could well be. Gosling is so invincible that you can summarise the story in 17 simple words: Assassin (Gosling) in danger.
Assassin flees, dodging bullets, grenades, and missiles. Every time, for the next two hours. The Russo brothers think that scale is everything. (Remember the big Bollywood film this week? The Gray Man is so bad that it feels like Shamshera got an H-1B visa.)
The movie has overlong set-pieces – featuring dozens of shooters across different settings (a nightclub, an aircraft, a city square, and so on) – spread all over the world. There’s a distinct schoolboy energy to the whole thing, as if the filmmakers think they’re making the first action movie in the history of cinema.
But even if you look beyond the soul-numbing action – though I’m not sure how, as that is the whole movie – you’ll notice that its micro mechanics are as stale and tiresome. Let’s take it bit by bit.
First, main characters.
Hero: a CIA assassin, named Sierra Six, speaks little, shoots a lot, cracks jokes (read: Standard Cool Guy).
Villain: an-ex CIA man, Hansen (Chris Evans), a sadistic sociopath, tortures, intimidates, and murders, and – of course – cracks jokes (read: Standard Bad Guy; Evans tries way too hard, and fails, to be even superficially charming).
But obviously the film needs to have some ‘heart’, so we get a young girl, Claire (Julia Butters) – the niece of Six’s retired boss – who shares an unlikely bond with the hero. Actually, not unlikely at all. It’s as clichéd as the rest of the film: a reticent tough guy getting ‘trolled’ by a chirpy kid.
Oh, sorry, there’s more, the little girl has a ‘heart condition’. The Six-Claire subplot is shoehorned via a long flashback. Needless, the Russo brothers should have blackened the screen for 15 seconds, with the caption ‘now you’re supposed to feel sentimental’, and it’d have been more effective.
Then there’s the banter. A lot of it. Every character in the film, despite the constant threats to their life, always has the time (and talent) for a repartee. Let alone the annoyance that Hollywood characters being ‘smart aleck-ey’ in an actioner has been a cliché for a long time – as if they’ve all rote-learned an Aaron Sorkin screenplay – The Gray Man stretches it to the level of yawning boredom.
Then there are drone shots. You consider Netflix’s documentaries insufferable with their (customary) panoramic sweeps across a city? Wait, till you come to this film. The camera here moves at such a dizzy speed – in almost every action set-piece as if it’s part of the syllabus – that you’re caught between a pitiful laugh and repulsive disbelief. I could almost hear the Russo brothers screaming, “You wanted cinema? Take this – C-I-N-E-M-A!”
I did enjoy the little cameo by our own “Tamil friend”, Dhanush, playing Lone Wolf, Hansen’s ally. It’s not a big role – featuring three broad action sequences, where he gets little dialogues – but his energy and screen presence are compelling.
But otherwise, Lone Wolf is just another character in a sea of characters, who rallies around Six, making sure that the hero looks as God-like as possible.
Gosling indeed wins it all; it’s the audience that loses.