Netflix debuts an opulent but messy spy movie, hoping for a homegrown franchise
There’s nothing visually drab about The Gray Man, an antic globe-trotting romp with mountains of bullet shells, showers of broken glass, a cavalcade of carcasses, explosions aplenty and collateral damage as far as the eye can see. But those who prefer their action-espionage with a dash of originality might find it an apt title. This is spunky-but-standard spy vs. spy stuff, a generic sampling of once-novel tropes cribbed from worthier agents named Bond or Bourne, let alone any number of Mission: Impossible films and even an episode or two of MacGyver. Which makes sense, because Netflix produced this opulent mess to potentially launch their own homegrown franchise.
THE GRAY MAN ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Written by: Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Wagner Moura, Julia Butters, Dhanush, Alfre Woodard, Billy Bob Thornton
Running time: 129 mins
As is requisite these days with mega-spectacles that strain production budgets, this $200 million movie practically hyperventilates with a jacked-up sense of mise-en-scene that privileges whirling-dervish camera movements and Ginsu-knife editing over concision and clarity. Amazingly, despite all the bombast, and due mainly to some inspired casting along with a few choice lines of sassy dialogue, it also has a light step that occasionally delivers one or two warm emotional moments.
The main attraction in The Gray Man is seeing Ryan Gosling mainstream the stone-cold-killer act that he debuted in outré Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives. But here he trades in the arthouse brooding for droll multiplex one-liners. What else can you do when your CIA black-ops name is Six? “Well, 007 was taken,” he deadpans. Exactly.
Six is on a New Year’s mission in Bangkok to assassinate a target when he hesitates due to nearby children being a collateral risk. His intense home-office boss Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) pushes adamantly for the kill, and Six senses foul play. The consummate professional, Six ends up taking down the target in a staging area with barrels full of active fireworks, because this is an insanely expensive flick with preposterous fight scenes. Just before he dies, the victim reveals himself to be a fellow covert-op spy named Four with a medallion necklace containing a flash drive loaded with compromising intel. Turns out Carmichael is exploiting the secret agents for shadow-government misuse on the orders of “The Old Man,” a mysterious and nefarious puppet master pulling all the strings. Because Deep State.
Six, trained to be a ghost, goes off the grid and contacts his father-figure mentor Don Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), a former CIA official who helped set up Six’s top-secret organization, code named Sierra. Carmichael, meanwhile, calls up his own ace in the hole: Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), an equally lethal and similarly trained killer who, being too psychopathic for government employ, has been enjoying a lucrative life in the private sector as a gleefully immoral mercenary. So Lloyd gets ruthless tracking down the untraceable Six by any means necessary. “Put a bullet in this Ken doll’s brain!” he yells, a clear wink at Gosling’s upcoming big-screen stint as Barbie’s boyfriend.
Evans, still fresh off his decadelong run as Captain America, clearly relishes the sleaze as a mustachioed and muscle-sculpted asshole in bespoke casual outfits, right down to the loafers with no socks. “The white pants, the trash ‘stache,” sighs Six. “It leans Lloyd.” And Gosling is having a ball being the wry, world-weary killer-with-a-conscience. “You hurt?” someone asks him after yet another bruising brawl. “I mean, my ego’s a little bruised,” he wisecracks. His never-let-them-see-you-sweat schtick is pretty entertaining, especially when he’s handcuffed to a stone park bench in the middle of Prague while scores of gung-ho paramilitary thugs keep hurling all sorts of ammo and explosives at him.
Ana de Armas is in this hot mess too, as a CIA sidekick who helps Six track down the truth and expose the corrupt officials. She’s a delight as the brainy beauty with impressive combat skills, but she doesn’t really advance the plot except when she conveniently shows up to shoot Lloyd in the ass with a tranquilizer gun. She and Six oddly leave Lloyd alive, by the way, allowing him to continue inflicting pain on them and their loved ones. Seems like an oversight, but fine. Also, Fitzroy has a kidnapped tweener niece named Claire (Julia Butters), who has a pacemaker and a bizarre love for 45-rpm vinyl singles from the 1970s, including the almost perversely obscure Mark Lindsay hit “Silver Bird.” There is no reason for this, other than to serve as background music when Six kills lots of evil henchmen.
The Russos otherwise score The Gray Man to a thwomp-thwomp electronica soundtrack that lubricates all the mayhem as it hopscotches from one demographically helpful international locale to another. All-cap words announce each new site: BANGKOK, AZERBAJIAN, MONACO, CHIANG MAI, TURKEY, LONDON, HONG KONG, VIENNA, BERLIN, CROATIA, PRAGUE. We get it, the world’s a dangerous place. And, with this daffy-demolition bread and circus, Netflix wants to appeal to every single nook and cranny.