Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans stars in an action extravaganza that feels like you’re watching them in the background while you’re on the phone.
The Gray Man, played by Ryan Gosling, is an off-book government assassin whose real name is Court Gentry, which sounds wrong enough (Beau Monde Patrician? Noble Fancyperson?) to make the idea of a codename feel a little redundant. But he also has one of them: Sierra Six, which is a nod to the CIA program he was recruited into early in the film, as well as a not-so-subtle nod to a certain global spy. “007 was taken,” Six even jokes at one point, and if you openly state that you’re an impersonation of a famous character, you’d feel like hubris in most other movies, well, The gray man is a Netflix Original, and bringing out brand new features that feel a lot like things you’ve seen before has become the streaming giant’s mainstay. And in many ways, it encapsulates what Netflix is now building its cinematic future on.
Adapted from the first in a series of books by Mark Greaney, it is set to start a franchise and will be helmed by Marvel veterans the Russo brothers. It’s also the most expensive film Netflix has ever made, though a large chunk of the reported $200 million budget certainly went into hefty payouts for Gosling (who hasn’t appeared in a film since first man in 2018), Chris Evans and Ana de Armas. What’s left was used to make something perfectly usable that you can leave on in the background while you noodle on your phone, and I mean that as a compliment. Netflix’s previous attempt at an extravagantly expensive star-driven action film, Red noticefelt like it was written by an AI and performed in front of green screens without its stars ever having to be in the same room. The gray man at least feels like a mediocre studio film that wasn’t worth seeing in theaters but would comfortably fill an afternoon if you stumbled upon it being aired on cable.
He’s actually not very Bond-like, Six, despite the film’s clear aspirations to be seen in that tradition. He’s somewhere between Jason Bourne and the title character La Femme Nikita, a willing recruit for a secret program he cannot object to. He is serving a life sentence when he is first approached by a CIA bigwig named Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). Fitzroy tells him he’s being trained to “kill bad guys,” and he says yes. Cut to a title card 18 years later and he’s in Bangkok about to meet up with agent Dani Miranda (de Armas) at the behest of an up-and-coming Langley named Carmichael (Bridgeton‘s Regé-Jean Page) who has nefarious intentions. Six’s intentions are less clear. Like all assassins, he appears to have a heart of gold, but it only comes out when his own survival is jeopardized by inter-agency politics. He has a Bourne-like ability for brutality and surviving serious injury, and the film tends to throw him into situations where he has to fight hand-to-hand, which admittedly ends up looking better than the gunfights. But he also has a very un-Bourne-like tendency to crack jokes.
The gray man, written by Joe Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is written like a comedy but never really acted like one. Gosling laconically delivers quips that would be unbearable if he leaned in. “Where are they?” Someone barks at him on the phone. “Emotionally?” he replies. I missed him on screen, and even when he’s on sleep mode, he makes enough unpredictable decisions to be interesting. Evans makes up for it energetically and more by smirking through the role of the cartoonishly sociopathic Lloyd Hansen, a mustachioed private contractor hired by Carmichael whose preferred method of sending troops of gunmen to shoot very public spaces seems to be him unsuitable for covert work. The movie spends a lot of time in a tonal purgatory, where it’s never clear if it’s meant to be funny, and while its banter isn’t generally good enough to factor into, it ends up undercutting the best gag, which is this one Lloyd and Carmichael didn’t meet at some unpleasant fieldwork in the Balkans or anything, they met at Harvard.
The plot, as far as there is one, involves a MacGuffin – a ride with incriminating evidence hidden in a locket – that takes the action from Turkey to Austria, the Czech Republic and Croatia, with a stop in flashbacks to Hong Kong . De Armas is relegated back to the role of a girl on Friday, with Alfre Woodard playing the bit role of a retired CIA chief. Tamil celebrity Dhanush is a mysterious mercenary in the kind of overtly pandering appearance formerly reserved for Chinese stars meant to lure international audiences (there’s no Netflix in China, but there is in India, a huge market to match it). company is struggling to capture). For all the film’s resources, however, the major set pieces are depressingly incoherent. The Russos were possibly responsible for one of the better elevator fight scenes in the MCU Captain America: The Winter Soldierbut here they enact extended action sequences in a crashing plane and a moving tram, reinforced with sloppy computer-generated work and so little sense of where the characters are in relation to the spaces they are in that there is none at all there is tension.
Not that that matters. The gray man ends as a TV pilot would, with shockingly low resolution, and most of the characters returned to their original positions to do so again in the inevitable sequel. It’s good enough for government work, but you can understand why they might want to keep the numbers secret.