The star of “La La Land” and “Drive” plays a spy named Sierra Six (“007 was taken”), who was recruited out of prison by a handler named Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). After that very brief set-up, “The Gray Man” hits the ground running with a mission gone very awry when Six is tasked by a new boss named Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) with taking out a target that turns out to be a fellow secret agent. The dying man tells Six that Denny is a bad guy before handing him the intel to prove it. Immediately, our stoic hero is on the run, before he’s really had any time to develop a personality as a movie character. That kind of blank protagonist is fine for taut, precise action films like those in the “John Wick” franchise, but this isn’t nearly that tight of a production. This movie needed an Ethan Hunt, someone defined by more than just the clichés that he won’t shoot a kid and he has a dark past. (Seriously, it would be tough to name five characteristics of a hero that we’re supposed to follow for two hours. Never a good sign.)
As Six goes on the run, Carmichael calls in Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a former CIA black ops mercenary who now works in the private sector where there are even fewer rules about things like torture and dumb mustaches. Hansen will do whatever it takes to get Six, including kidnapping Fitzroy’s daughter Claire (Julia Butters) to get his attention. Of course, Six has a connection with Claire having watched over her a few years ago. He’s the spy who wants kids to live, which separates him from a sociopath like Hansen. Meanwhile, another spy named Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) joins Six on his quest for freedom. and she is given even less character definition than her male counterparts, believe it or not.
And that’s really it for two hours. Good guy, bad guy, woman in the middle, kid in jeopardy, things go boom. Some of the action sequences, especially an insane one in a town square, can be pretty effective, but most of the film is shot at such a bizarrely low light that it dulls even the incredible screen presence of the undeniably charismatic Gosling, Evans, and de Armas. Seriously, whoever thought the right lighting for most of a globe-trotting action flick was the low light palette of “Ozark” deserves a cinematic jail sentence. “The Gray Man” should be joyously over-the-top if it wants to be a new Fast or Bourne franchise but with the exception of a wisecracking Evans, everything here feels so programmatically dull. It’s a silly piece of popcorn entertainment that too often forgets that this kind of venture needs to be fun.