By George Bate and Josh Reilly B.
Netflix has found success across a variety of shows (i.e. Stranger Things, Mindhunter, You) and prestigious cinema (i.e. The Irishman, Roma, The Power of the Dog), staking its claim as one of the big players in the movie industry, but has struggled with blockbuster, big budget outings. The likes of 6 Underground, Triple Frontier, Bright, and Red Notice have been met with, at best, middling critical and fan reception and, despite sprawling franchise aspirations, only Red Notice seems to have any staying power. Cut to The Gray Man, the new action and spy thriller from the Russo Brothers that holds the title of being Netflix’s most expensive film to date. Despite lacking in originality, The Gray Man impresses as a wildly fun throwback 90s action movie with two compelling, opposing leads and well-crafted action set-pieces.
The Gray Man comes from directors Anthony and Joe Russo, famous for their work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a screenplay from the latter Russo brother and their MCU collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Mark Greaney, The Gray Man stars Ryan Gosling as Sierra Six, an elite CIA operative whose discovery of his superiors’ dark secrets put him on a collision course with Chris Evans’ psychopathic killer Lloyd Hansen.
In watching The Gray Man, it’s evident that the film is lacking in originality, both narratively and stylistically, but the Russo Brothers are aware of this. The directors are not trying to reinvent the action genre, but, rather, simply put forth a worthy new effort to appeal to fans of the likes of Mission: Impossible and James Bond. In this regard, The Gray Man is an overwhelming success. The film is unburdened by a bloated runtime (see, No Time to Die) or convoluted storytelling (see, Mission: Impossible – Fallout), instead opting for a straightforward ‘elite killer on the run from his former employers,’ á la the Jason Bourne franchise. This makes for a refreshing installment in a genre that has, unfortunately, been hampered by such issues. The Gray Man never overstays its welcome, each scene lasting just the right amount of time before shifting to the next one. The Russo Brothers often impress with the pacing of their films, especially Avengers: Infinity War, and the directors once again tap into these sensibilities in crafting their newest effort. Moreover, they’re unafraid of leaning into and acknowledging inspirations behind their work. The Gray Man’s story takes the characters all around the world in a manner not dissimilar from a James Bond film. Even the lead character is referred to as ‘Six’ and there is a passing reference to 007. Collectively, this makes for a movie-watching experience that undoubtedly and unpretentiously entertains.
Much of this entertainment comes from the Russo Brothers’ impressive handling of action set pieces. While their last directorial outing in Cherry was excessive and overindulgent, The Gray Man is free of such distracting filmmaking. The hand-to-hand combat is intense and well-choreographed, while the bigger sequences are sprawling and gripping. A few distracting drone shots aside, the film integrates practical and computer-generated effects well.
An apt comparison for The Gray Man is a 90s action film, even down to the looks and (actual and proverbial) head-butting of its two leads. Ryan Gosling evokes his performances in Drive and Blade Runner 2049 in being as unemotional as possible. He has a largely unchanging facial expression throughout the film whether talking in an amicable conversation, telling a joke, or running atop a crashing tram in the middle of a crowded city. In isolation, Gosling’s performance may be a little too unengaging, but, juxtaposed with Chris Evans’ delightfully over-the-top villain, it plays brilliantly. Whereas Gosling is cool, calm, and collected, Evans brings a frenetic energy to the film. He’s the kind of talkative, loud, cocky, and obnoxious villain that wouldn’t feel out of place in a 90s action picture.
Supporting the two leads is an ensemble cast that, for the most part, fails to make much of an impression. Ana de Armas and Jessica Henwick are wasted in their respective roles, which, unfortunately, can be boiled down to glorified side-kicks to Gosling and Evans’ characters. Billy Bob Thornton plays a small, yet important role in the film, as does Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s breakout star Julia Butters. The Gray Man does just enough to sell the emotional bond between Gosling and Butters, which is important as their bond is what drives much of the characters’ actions. The role of Tamil cinema superstar Dhanush will likely disappoint fans, as the actor is restricted to two action set pieces and very limited dialogue. Needless to say, the lack of substance among the supporting cast just emphasizes how much of the film lies with Gosling and Evans.
What The Gray Man lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in sheer entertainment value. Netflix’s most expensive film of all time, that the company hopes will spawn a new franchise, refreshingly sets itself apart from other bloated and convoluted big-budget action movies. Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans balance each other out perfectly as Gosling’s cool and calm demeanor works brilliantly with Evans’ callous and careless nature. After the somewhat overindulgent Cherry, The Russo Brothers return to form with an undoubtedly fun and well paced action / spy thriller that fans of James Bond, Mission: Impossible, Jason Bourne, and the like will love.