Let’s talk of Dhanush first, and his few minutes in the frame. The Tamil star gets all of two and a half scenes in The Gray Man, puts on his fighting shoes for most parts and unleashes good old masala action in choreographed stunt sequences that pit him against Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas. This isn’t a film about acting chops but when it comes to matching screen presence, Dhanush sure gives the best a run for their money with little or no dialogues and with just a couple of fight scenes. He plays Lone Wolf, a hitman on a mission that pits him against Gosling and de Armas. Later, Chris Evans as the film’s antagonist cuts it to the bone for Dhanush and his character: “You look like you’ve been hit by a bus but it only adds to your mystique.”

Dhanush’s presence is among the few interesting spins that unfold in fits and starts in The Gray Man, director duo Anthony and Joe Russo’s generic makeover bid following their heady Avengers run. This time Brothers Russo have given the old-school spy action thriller a shot, the package duly amped with CGI blitz. If the crossover from Iron Man to The Gray Man seems sweeping enough, Brothers Russo have gone all out in trying to serve it big. But once you’re through being mesmerised by all the hardsell points, you notice the Russos have actually splurged a rumoured $200 million on an over-the-top commercial vehicle that may work as a one-time watch but struggles to find purpose as genre-defining entertainment in the way their MCU directorials did.

Adapting Mark Greaney’s 2009 novel of the same name, the Russos were obviously out to imagine the book’s adventure quotient as a mass movie with franchise prospects. The film is reminiscent of the way Hollywood made action biggies back in the day, only there was far less FX sparkle then. The Gray Man tries reviving the eighties/nineties blockbuster, when Arnold Schwarzenegger carved superstardom with heavy-duty machismo or Pierce Brosnan scored a global fan base with his brand of James Bond espionage. That was an era in commercial Hollywood when how you unleashed the gunfights was more important than how original your storyline was, and such films wholly scored with big screen impact. The Russos’ decision to go the OTT way with their new film for the global market is beyond reason, given its visual lavishness.

Ryan Gosling stars as CIA mercenary Courtland Gentry, also known as Sierra Six, who stumbles upon an incriminating truth about the agency. The situation is an embarrassing one for the CIA, so the agency hires a psychopathic pro named Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to get Six. The ensuing cat-and-mouse chase opens up the scope for action and drama that largely fall back on familiar tropes from countless Hollywood flicks of the past.

The Russos were clearly never concerned about depicting the cold realism of the world of espionage. The screenplay (Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely) was essentially constructed to accommodate a fast paced chase story, besides keeping the two stars busy with intermittent action scenes. The narrative is executed without many surprises. Somehow, the film comes across as a collection of non-stop set-pieces and you are likely to guess the outcome of every highlight sequence even before it is over. There is the stray shot at intensity once in a while. Hardly any such scene stays in mind.

For a film mounted on such an ambitious scale, the Russos needed to develop smarter suspense drama. The expected focus on action would be effective if the director duo concentrated on more original twists. The Gray Man starts getting aimless after a point as the storytelling tries to match the frenetic chain of events. It is the reason the Russos fail at reinventing the spy action thriller with this film the way they did for the superhero flick with their Avengers films. The brothers set a high parameter for themselves directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. In contrast, The Gray Man seems too bland as popcorn entertainment in comparison.

Fascinating, though, is how the Russos have tackled it all with irreverence. There is a sense of wanton relish for the very cliches that drown the narrative. The Russos knew nothing short the spectacular would do, returning as the directors were with their first big-budget film post their Avengers success (they directed the modestly-mounted Cherry in between, with mediocre result). They’ve made a film that manages to be spectacular in bits. Only, unlike their Avengers hits, The Gray Man remains a one-time watch.

Technically, the film is mounted to regale with an over-the-top impact, with nifty camera work (Stephen F. Windon) and editing (Jeff Groth and Pietro Scalia) to maintain a frenzied tempo all along. The stylish filmmaking, as always, also distracts focus from the fact that the film doesn’t actually have much of a story to tell. The overall explosive mood is effectively brought alive by the production design (Dennis Gassner) and a 10-member art direction crew that works to ensure the film looks sleek despite low IQ storytelling.

For Ryan Gosling, being CIA agent Six lets him have some mindless action-packed fun, removed from the sombre turf of Driven, Only God Forgives, The Believer or The United States Of Leland — roles that have come to define his standing as a bankable actor. Chris Evans won’t shake off his Captain America image just yet, but playing the Schopenhauer-quoting psycho Lloyd Hansen definitely serves as a departure from his popular Avengers avatar. The Russos not long ago revealed they were considering the plan of turning The Gray Man into a full-fledged franchise. The idea would be welcome for both stars.

Only, next time the filmmaker duo would need a more interesting approach as they went about trying to reload the spy thriller with action-heavy fun. The Gray Man could have been so much more with some imagination. The Gray Man 2 would surely demand a lot more grey cells.

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By akagami