I don’t watch many Hollywood films and haven’t seen any of the Russo Brothers previous works, but with Dhanush in the cast I decided to watch their latest film: The Gray Man. While the film was an okay watch, it hasn’t changed my view that USA action films rely too heavily on firepower and heavy-handed morality while skipping essential elements like characterisation and storyline. While there is plenty of action, most of this relies on gun fights and blowing things up, making the few physical fights scenes stand out in comparison. Thankfully these mostly feature Dhanush too, but otherwise, the film consists of a series of action sequences, loosely bound together by a vague storyline that’s full of clichés. It’s not a bad film, but it’s also not particularly memorable and slots neatly into the standard US action mould that’s a reasonable timepass but not much more.
Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling) is recruited from prison by Donald Fitzroy aka Fitz (Billy Bob Thornton) to become a black ops agent for the CIA. In exchange for his freedom, he becomes the nameless Sierra Six who carries out assassinations for the organisation as directed – no questions asked. The film opens with Sierra Six in Bangkok to remove a target, later revealed to be another Sierra agent who passes on details of corruption within the agency. Six escapes with the information but CIA boss Denny Carmichael (Rége-Jean Page) sets private contractor and ex-agent Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) on his trail to eliminate Six and retrieve the information. Lloyd is a psychopath with no boundaries, which ensures plenty of collateral damage as he chases after Six. This includes kidnapping Fitz and his niece Claire (Julia Butters) to try and flush out Six, leading of course to a rescue mission by Six. Lloyd has numerous teams of assassins who attempt to kill Six in various locations across Europe while causing mayhem, carnage, and destruction in the process, but completely failing to succeed in their mission.
Dhanush appears well over an hour into the film as Avik San (aka Lone Wolf), an assassin also hired by Lloyd to eliminate Six. While the other mercenaries are all faceless teams, Avik San works alone and relies on his wits and fighting skills rather than weapons and gunpowder. This means that Avik has a few lines of dialogue and a couple of well-choreographed fight scenes that look awesome and stand out compared to the rest of the repetitive bloodshed. In comparison to Lloyd’s other mercenaries, Avik San also has a strong sense of morality which leads him to break with Lloyd, when he discovers his reckless methodology. This leaves Six and another CIA agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) free to finish Lloyd if they can.
The film has a great cast, but most have thinly sketched characters who appear, either help or hinder Six, and are then disposed of. Six is also a caricature of a man on the run and despite flashbacks explaining his crime and his childhood, there is never any real sense of who he actually is and what he thinks of his whole situation. If his enemies weren’t so bat-shit crazy, it would be difficult to care whether he wins or not given how little empathy is given to the character. Chris Evans fares somewhat better as Lloyd, who has several character traits (mostly all psychopathic), which at least make him a more interesting character, even if it is one we are meant to hate. With so many one-dimensional characters and a continuous turnover as they are shot, beaten to death or blown-up, the only real interest in the film are the locations and the overall appearance of the scenes. But even then it’s only the title on screen that explains where the scene is set, since little of the location is shown onscreen. While an action sequence in Prague is beautifully staged and well shot, most of the other action set pieces are so dark it is difficult to see what is going on. Even the best fight scene, with Dhanush and Ana de Armas, is hard to follow due to the low lightening and smoke that hides the action. Since there isn’t much happening in between action sequences it seems strange that these aren’t shot more clearly so that the choreography can be better appreciated. For a film that is all about the action, it seems an odd choice.
The story itself is generic and the dialogue mostly consists of a series of one-liners and off-hand quips that may have read well on paper but don’t translate well on screen. Alfre Woodard as Margaret Cahill, the former head of the CIA London branch, has some of the best and most effective dialogue, but Lloyd generally sounds petulant and seems to be trying too hard, while Six has little to say for much of the film. I’m not the target audience for this kind of film and while I enjoyed the brief appearance by Dhanush, this entire film seemed to waste so many good opportunities to be more than just another action movie. I missed the masala mix of Southern Indian cinema and the heavy reliance on guns and explosives here rather than fight sequences became boring by the end. 2 ½ stars.