All that separates the Russos’ film from its predecessors is that it’s a lot more stupid. After many happy years as a CIA hitman under the command of his beloved boss and father figure Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton with a Colonel Sanders beard), Six gets hold of a USB stick containing some incriminating data about Fitroy’s smug young replacement Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page). Yes, a USB stick. Not exactly cutting edge, is it? The one-dimensionally evil Carmichael calls in a one-dimensionally crazy contractor called Lloyd (Chris Evans with a moustache) to retrieve the doohickey and to bump off Six, and Lloyd in turn calls in every team of assassins in his little black book. Yes, he has unlimited funds. And yes, the assassins have the magical power to converge on Six, wherever he is in the world. And yes, they’re all able to take truckloads of heavy artillery through customs. And yes, these supposedly covert organisations and elite hit squads can fire rockets at each other in city squares without anyone asking any awkward questions.
It’s fair to say that Greaney’s idea of Six being a mysterious figure who can slip into the shadows, unnoticed by anyone, has been abandoned in favour of absurdly over-the-top mayhem, so if you enjoy seeing planes, cars and buildings being blown up in a fake-looking way, then The Gray Man will pass the time. But there are only so many landmarks you can see being levelled, and innocent by-standers being slaughtered, before you start to question whether it’s all worth it. Six, remember, isn’t out to save civilisation as we know it. He’s just hoping to send one CIA officer to jail. In Greaney’s novel there was a billion-dollar oil deal at stake, but there’s no sign of that in the film, so it’s hard to care about any of it. If Six had just handed over the USB stick in the opening 10 minutes, wouldn’t the world have been a better place?
The mindless destruction might have been bearable if The Gray Man had been a comedy – and there are times when it almost is. The characters always have smarmy comebacks at the ready (although they’re witty without being funny), the ever-cool Gosling raises a smile by treating the violence as a mildly irritating inconvenience, and Evans is entertainingly horrible as a sadistic sociopath. But this knockabout nonsense is interspersed with upsetting torture scenes, and numerous shots of a child being terrified by all the carnage around her. The Russos clearly couldn’t decide which tone to go for, so they made a zany farce about cheerful super-spies, and then they made a cynical conspiracy drama about death and trauma, and they kept cutting between them.
The result is a film that never seems to know what it’s doing, or why. The irony is that it keeps trying to be The Bourne Identity, and yet it still ends up with an identity crisis.
The Gray Man is in cinemas from 15 July and on Netflix from 22 July.
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