The Grey Man, MA. 126 minutes. 4 stars
The Russo Brothers, Hollywood sibling writer-director-producer wunderkinds, cut their teeth on clever ensemble television comedy like Happy Endings and Community but soon the big-money end of Hollywood came knocking on their doors.
The folk at Marvel recognised that their big investment in flashy comic-book storytelling worked best when audiences were laughing at clever gags as much as they were being smacked around by explosions and action.
The Russo Brothers were just the right combo of comedy sensibility and harvesting of performance and camera movement.
Across four Marvel films they honed their craft and now with this slick hit-man action flick they get to put everything they've learned into practice, and they don't have to somehow also pack in moments for thirty separate superhero characters.
The Gray Man of the title is Ryan Gosling's Sierra Six, trained government assassin with preternatural reflexes, decision-making and a gifted killer.
A gray man can disappear into the background, the perfectly ignorable figure to work his way through a crowd, take out a target, and blend back into the crowd never to be seen again.
Six has been sent on assignment in a Bangkok nightclub, hired by the CIA to take out an asset who turns out to be Four, another assassin who came up through the same program, trained by Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton).
With his dying breath, Four convinces Six to take a pendant that contains a thumb drive, and its contents propel the rest of the film's action - the encrypted drive holds evidence that CIA mastermind Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) is behind a series of definitely un-governmental terror activity.
Carmichael sends off-the-books operator Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) after Six.
How does Lloyd flush out a man able to disappear so effectively? He finds the one thing he cares about, Fitzroy's nice Claire (Julia Butters), kidnapping her and drawing Six and his partner Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) across a handful of countries and to certain death.
The stunt coordinators and fight choreographers deserve the biggest kudos for this film. There is real invention at play. Six works with anything and everything within arm's reach in his fights - chopsticks, pens, flare guns, parachutes.
The Russo Brothers have an open chequebook from Netflix (the film is getting a short cinema season before launching on the streaming platform) and they spend every cent they can on drone and crane shots, on CGI, on enormous set-pieces, on hundreds of extras and elaborate sets.
This is an old-fashioned popcorn film, a violent feel-good fest of flash and sizzle and consuming it just makes you feel good.
The film's cast is expensive and everyone seems to be having a ball.
Chris Evans has moved on from people drooling over him. Here he sports a porn moustache and a skin-tight golf shirt and he is a real piece of work, an unrepentant a-hole who celebrates his own lack of morals.
His Knives Out colleague Ana de Armas picks up where her recent Bond film character left off, punching and kicking her way through without that film's glib one-liners.
We've recently been treated with on-set photos of Ryan Gosling on the new Barbie film, bleach-blond hair as Barbie's boyfriend Ken, and there's a fun line in this film where Six is referred to as a human Ken Doll.
Gosling enjoys a physical role he effortlessly steps through while displaying a minimum of emotion, placing Six in the same oeuvre as his Julian from Only God Forgives or Driver from Drive.
Mark Greaney's novels, from which the Russos' and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have drawn their script, have eleven titles, and the film certainly leaves room to build a franchise.
The locations are big money, the pace of the film frenetic, and the serotonin gets a bit of a workout.
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