The Gray Man
Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) is an elite covert operative, recruited straight from prison by the CIA’s Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) and assigned to the most dangerous of tasks. After Fitzroy is sent into retirement and replaced by the more clinical and upwardly mobile Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page), the Sierra programme comes under threat: when Six comes into possession of data that proves Carmichael and his allies are criminals, he and agent Mirande (Ana de Armas) are thrust into a globe crossing mission to expose them, save Fitzroy and his kidnapped niece and defeat the predations of Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), Denny’s psychopathic contract killer.
This is a big gamble from Netflix, who so often throw just a small amount of money at feature productions. The Gray Man, with big name directors, a big name cast and enough action set-pieces to satisfy just about anyone, constitutes an enormous investment from a company who seemed to be leaking subscribers earlier this year. It pretty much had to be a hit, or else you’d imagine Netflix might be in a bit of trouble. Well, I don’t know how many eyeballs Netflix got on this product, other than mine of course, but from a quality perspective I’m happy to declare The Gray Man a hit, the kind of action spectacular that Netflix deserve some reward for bankrolling and giving this kind of platform.
I really enjoyed this one. There are moments when it gets ridiculously silly – a major shoot-out in the streets of Prague is the worst example, with American special-ops teams essentially committing a 9/11-esque atrocity and believing that they will get away with it – and other moments when it gets unexpectedly heartfelt, but at its core it knows what it is and what it wants to present, which is an old-school mano-a-mano style confrontation story between two heavy-weights jumping around fancy locales, with the requisite amount of explosions, death traps, adorable children who have been kidnapped and big men punching each other repeatedly. You can imagine this kind of story being made in different ways throughout the decades – maybe Russell, Stallone, Willis or Schwarzenegger would be Sierra Six in other eras – and this is 2022’s version of the same. It’s Bond, mixed with Bourne mixed with Plisken mixed with Torreto mixed with Hunte and while there is very little of it that could be called unique, its still a flavourful mash-up of styles made with skill, easily enjoyed provided you are willing to not take it all too seriously.
Our steely eyed hero launches us through a series of cool set-pieces, that range from trying to escape a hidden trap room in a MacGyver-esque way, to dodging bullets and bombs on top of a rampaging tram. The sense of thrill rarely leaves the production, and the Russo’s are old hands now at establishing the right pace for an action-adventure story. What would have been a predictable love plot with Ana de Armas – re-uniting with Gosling after Blade Runner 2049 – is dropped in favour of just more action and a different beating heart in the relationship between Six and young charge Claire (Julia Butters, last seen stealing the show in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood), and while the sentimentality in that regard is a little mawkish, it never goes too far. Most importantly, The Gray Man never loses sight of what it is, which is the story of a calm, cool, collected and unflappable secret agent taking on an uncaring bureaucracy and the toxic brash masculinity that said bureaucracy is defending. It never gets boring, it never gets slow and it doesn’t rest on its laurels when it comes to switching things between action beats.
Of course it is very silly in fundamental ways. It’s knocking on Die Another Day levels of ridiculousness and expectations of disbelief suspension, which is hard to do when the film briefly takes turns for the unfortunately realistic (like a fairly brutal torture scene that we could have done without, or several examples of people blowing themselves up to try and take out the bad guys). The Gray Man is simply the streaming version of the kind of Hollywood blockbuster best summed up by The Fast And The Furious franchise, and your ability to tolerate or enjoy it will be heavily influenced by your ability to tolerate or enjoy that kind of action flick. I can, when it is done well as it is here.
For all this, the weak point of the film is probably the lead. Gosling remains a conundrum to me and so many others, because he does have a certain presence, but his acting style tends towards the wooden and unemotional. Like an early-era Keanu Reeves, he seems like an actor who is trading more on his good looks than his acting ability, and yet there is still something about him all the same. If I had to make a comparison, I would say it would be to Matt Damon’s Bourne, a straight-laced and straight-faced killer, with enough behind the eyes to stop you from dismissing him as a plank entirely, but not so much that you don’t wonder just how it is he has gotten to his position. The idea may be that we have a spy here who does not want to be a spy, and acts accordingly, but I think I would have liked a bit more from Gosling, whose only real bit of proper acting comes late in the day as the character discusses, briefly, his traumatic childhood. He’s out-acted in spades by Evans, who leaps gleefully into the role of toxic alpha male Lloyd. It’s much the same character he played in Knives Out, only with special forces training and a mercenary army behind him, and the results are outstanding. Anyone can play a bad guy in these films as an irredeemable villain that you just want to see beat up and shot, but Evans manages to both do that and still make Lloyd weirdly compelling, a guy whose next raunchy quip or brutal putdown you actually want to see.
The rest of the cast is fine, without ever really being amazing. De Armas is transitioning well into being an action staple after her turn in No Time To Die, Page is suitably creepy as the CIA head honcho with more clever verbal ploys than brains, Thornton reminds us all that he still exists in a good father-figure role and there’s even room for Alfre Woodard, Wagner Moura and Jessica Henwick to make impactful appearances. I suppose there are none better than the Russo’s in terms of incorporating large casts into big-budget features effectively, and no one really makes a bad showing in The Gray Man.
Visually it’s a treat of course. The directors have given some mixed messages regarding just what they were intending for The Gray Man, with Anthony insisting it was shot with cinemas in kind and Joe giving some frank thoughts on how such arenas may well be on the wrong side of history already, but I didn’t find that small-screen avenue negatively effected The Gray Man all that much. The use of colour and tone is something that can be appreciated regardless of output device. There are some really good set-pieces: a hand-to-hand at the beginning that takes place amid a fireworks display; a “one against many” sequence onboard a disintegrating plane; that extended evisceration of Prague’s city centre, which despite its unreality is so expertly choreographed you just have to appreciate it; and a closing battle in a Croatian castle, where The Gray Man runs the gauntlet from sniper battles to a very John Wick-esque fistfight in a hedge maze. The influences are from all over, and at any given moment you might be thinking of The Raid or you might be thinking of Bollywood blockbusters like Ek Tha Tiger or something more in the same vein like the Mission: Impossible franchise. The Russo’s sample liberally, but it’s OK in this sub-genre: the resulting mix is a delight really, offering a myriad of forms and thrills to keep you interested.
In the end I feel like there is only so much criticism you can make about a film like this. It won’t be topping many film of the year lists, or even making a major swing at being in the top ten. But that doesn’t really matter. I said before that The Gray Man knows what it is and what it wants to show the audience, and that aura of confidence in itself makes all the difference. It’s a fun action-adventure with a committed cast, decent visuals and lots of thrills. It doesn’t make any amazing comments on the human condition, but it will get the heart racing at the requisite moments, and that is what it needs to do. This is a gamble that has paid off for Netflix, and I have a feeling the titular spy will be seen again. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).