That’s more like it. Following a slew of hugely popular but not-very-good action movies (Red Notice, Extraction), Netflix delivers a rampaging, star-studded spy-fight with The Gray Man that puts all the money on the big screen, while Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans go head to head.
In some theaters, streaming off and on on Netflix July 22, The Gray Man begins with Gosling, who was in prison two decades ago, and jokes about Billy Bob Thornton’s stalwart CIA spy. “We understand you’re slippery,” Thornton replies, but as Gosling contemplates life as murder for the government, his eyes soften sadly. And if we catch up with Gosling in modern times, now a sophisticated killing machine known only as Sierra 6, he’s a jaded shell good only for taking down nameless bad actors who fall on the wrong side of Uncle Sam are. Except he runs afoul of his calculating boss after refusing to endanger a child.
Woah woah woah. Serious? This year, 2022, are we still making movies about assassins who go rogue because they don’t want to kill a child?
Okay good. Anyway, Gosling comes into conflict with Chris Evans’ insane mercenary when they’re both dispatched to retrieve a vital USB drive, and —
Wait wait. no I do not have it. A USB drive? After 60 yearsafter six (and counting) Mission: Impossible movies, a spy movie is hanging on a damn USB stick!
So yes. On paper, The Gray Man has all the elements of a formulaic spy genre (and I mean Everyone the Elements — there’s about four movies’ worth of stuff going on). USB stick. A kidnapped niece. Bureaucrats who are the real bad guys. Wet teams striding across airfields in protective vests. Action scenes that cut to panicked analysts in front of monitor walls. Tense phone calls in skyscrapers. Rooftop helipads and safe lines and guys that drop the bullets from one gun before the other guy can shoot him.
But as another city name blares across the screen in giant letters, one wonders if the filmmakers are scoffing at the conventions of the spy counter. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo are very conscious of the type of flicks they make. The witty banter and sharp action are heightened and stylized and just a ton of fun.
That’s what sets The Gray Man apart from formulaic suckers like Extraction or Amazon’s puffy Without Remorse. From the opening scene of Gosling charging into battle in a crisp scarlet suit and twirling a water gun, to his silent silhouette dispatching a platoon of bodyguards with whatever cutlery was handy, the film has swagger to burn with. Don’t let the title fool you: there’s nothing gray about the cinematography, kinetic camerawork, and playful music. The Gray Man is up there with stylized guys like Atomic Blonde and could give John Wick some bang for the buck.
A big part of the film’s success is the star performance on display, with Gosling and Evans (and supercharismatic guest star Dhanush) handling the action heroes and witty banter with equal confidence. Gosling plays it relatively straight forward, although Sierra 6’s real name is Courtland Gentry, meaning he has not one, but two incredibly cool action hero names. Evans sets it up for both of them as a politely insane torturer with a wardrobe of smartly knit polo shirts‘s maladjusted little brother. His character’s name is Lloyd Hanson, by the way, which is less cool than Sierra 6, but is memorable because someone says it literally every 20 seconds.
I’m mentioning the names because Ana de Armas is also in this film, but I’d be damned if I could tell you what her character’s name is. While the main characters have a backstory (although Evans just “went to Harvard”), her character has no motivational story that I can recall. The script doesn’t even give her much of a personality, aside from the obligatory super-badassness and her grumpy demeanor when guys yell at her. At least the appearance of de Armas in the Bond filmwas essentially a cameo, but this is a waste of the moment’s white-hot star.
Because it’s an action flick, the many international stops lead to violence. It’s obviously all fun and games, all stylishly shot gunfights and rollicking brawls. But then a huge showdown ensues in the streets of a major European city. High-velocity projectiles destroy houses. High-profile death machines sweep through crowded public squares. You might not see it, but plain normal people going about their daily lives are clearly being killed in horrific ways. After public shootings in the US, Denmark and Norway (and that was just this year), this callous ultraviolence hits differently.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s the point. After this apocalyptic struggle, the film does not happily move on to the next exotic location. Instead, she remains in a hospital surrounded by the wounded and dying. Granted, this is partly a setup for the next fight. But The Gray Man offers at least a glimmer of thought about the wildness that unfolds on screen, about the screen’s portrayal of violence as redeeming and protective, about the futility of it all. It’s not exactly Drive or Only God Forgives, Gosling’s 2011 and 2013 art house subversions (with director Nicolas Winding Refn) of the car chase and crime genres. But there’s definitely a layer of subversive nuance here. It is significant that we never see terrorists or doomsday weapons in the spy world of this film. The only threat to ordinary people like you and me is the internal strife of various scruffy sociopaths vying for power no matter who gets caught in the crossfire.
Ultimately, The Gray Man encourages us to enjoy a stylish shoot ’em up with handsome people going bang-bang while still nudging us to remember that it’s a fantasy. Maybe I’m blinking too hard to say this is Netflix’s smartest action movie, but it’s definitely one of the funniest.
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