The Gray Man is in constant danger of becoming a John Wick flick, entertaining as it is.
Netflix’s big-budget, star-studded spy-versus-spy affair, which hits theaters this week before hitting the streaming platform next week, is so action-packed it’s tiptoeing over the line between a cross-eyed Realism transcends and total madness.
Ultimately, the latest from Joe and Anthony Russo – the Northeast Ohio brother-filmmaker duo responsible for two of the highest-grossing films of all time, 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and 2019’s Avengers: Endgame – makes it – to stay out of the realm of the utterly ridiculous, though hardly so.
That it retains an emotional center even as scenes with a significant amount of dialogue progressively give way to ones riddled with gunfire and explosions makes it a winner. (And all that big-screen boom arguably makes it worth the price of a movie ticket, even if you’re a Netflix subscriber.)
The Russos had been working on an adaptation of Mark Greaney’s 2009 novel of the same name for several years while working to film the aforementioned MCU affairs and others for Disney-owned Marvel Studios. The screenplay was penned by Joe Russo and MCU veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
The Russos found their morally challenged villain in Captain America himself, Chris Evans, while choosing Ryan Gosling as their leading man.
We’re introduced to Gosling’s Court Gentry in prison, where he’s being visited by a CIA man, Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton, “Goliath”), to recruit him into Sierra, a top-secret program that trains criminals to perform at their best operators. Court becomes Sierra Six, aka “Six,” and we next see him years later amid a fireworks display of both literal and figurative diversity in Bangkok.
Six is in Thailand to assassinate a high-profile target, which he discovers after things have gone sideways is Sierra Four. Six wonders why his boss, Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page, “Bridgerton”) wants a Sierra man dead, and begins following a path to the truth after receiving a nudge from Four.
With Six no longer under his control, Carmichael, like Four, wants him out of the picture forever. Once again, conventional means of getting him fail, and Carmichael turns to Evans’ Lloyd Hansen, a former CIA man whose tactics have proven too dirty for the agency to accept.
Lloyd tries to influence Six by threatening not only the life of Fitzroy, his now-retired handler, but also that of Fitzroy’s young niece, Claire (Julia Butters, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”). (In flashback sequences, we see a connection between Six and Claire, whose heart condition requires a pacemaker.)
Also pivotal to the mix is fellow CIA agent Dani Miranda, played by Ana de Armas, who shared the screen with Evans in 2019’s Knives Out. Dani was in Bangkok with Six and finally gets involved with him – only after Carmichael accuses her of being in cahoots with the rogue agent.
Supporting cast include Jessica Henwick (“The Matrix Resurrections”) as Susanne Brewer, a Carmichael subordinate who is appropriately suspicious of Lloyd; Alfre Woodard (“Paternity”) as Margaret Cahill, a former CIA bureau chief who, like her colleague Fitzroy, was at odds with the new regime; and Dhanush as Avik San, one of many skilled assassins who answers a call from Lloyd to kill Six.
With apologies to all the fringe characters, The Gray Man revolves almost entirely around the game of cat and mouse played by Lloyd and Six.
It’s reinforced by the pleasantly over-the-top performance from Evans, who seems elated to chew up the scenery as the polar opposite of Captain America for the Russians. (The brothers also directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016).)
Gosling (“La La Land,” “Blade Runner 2049”), on the other hand, is far more subtle than Six, the film’s title character, who operates in the gray areas of spy work. Rarely the fiery type, Gosling runs the risk of appearing almost disinterested at times, but his performance is interesting for the most part and he generally makes the most of the little moments.
And my apologies to Gosling and Evans NOW, the real star of The Gray Man is the action. At a time when Netflix has suffered some much-discussed subscriber losses and is in the midst of a belt tightening, it’s releasing what is perhaps its most expensive film. Like last year’s Red Notice, The Gray Man was reportedly budgeted at $200 million.
Well, the Russians made a lot out of all that money. The action rarely lasts long, and an elaborate, extended set piece in a historic Prague square is something to behold. According to the film’s production notes, filming shut down the busy part of Prague’s Old Town for an impressive 10 days. It’s exciting stuff, a lot of it happening in and around a bus that looks like a tram.
The Gray Man also benefits from the ability of Dhanush, a prolific actor in Indian cinema, to handle complex fight choreography. As a result, a clash between Avik and Six and Dani really pops.
Disappointingly, the same cannot be said of Six and Lloyd’s final confrontation, which feels both forced and completely unremarkable.
Still, it’s easy to recommend this slick, but not too slick, globetrotting adventure, and it’s a solid throwback for the Russos after last year’s “Cherry,” a disappointing true-story-based drama starring fellow MCU veteran Tom Holland landing on Apple TV+.
While The Gray Man has more empty calories, it’s also tastier.
“The Gray Man”
Where: Theater and Netflix.
When: July 15 (cinema), July 22 (Netflix).
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences with heavy violence and heavy language.
Duration: 2 hours, 9 minutes.
Stars (out of four): 3.