That’s more like it. Following a string of wildly popular but not very good action movies (Red Notice, Extraction), Netflix delivers with The Gray Man, a rip-roaring and star-powered spy romp that puts all the money on screen as Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans explosively go head to head.
In some theaters now and streaming on Netflix this Friday, July 22, The Gray Man opens with Gosling in prison two decades ago, wisecracking at Billy Bob Thornton’s unflappable CIA spook. “We get it, you’re glib,” Thornton responds, but as Gosling contemplates a life of murder for the government his eyes soften mournfully. And when we catch up to Gosling in the modern day, now a slick killing machine known only as Sierra 6, he’s a jaded shell only good for dispatching nameless bad actors who got on the wrong side of Uncle Sam. Except he finds himself at odds with his calculating boss after he refuses to endanger a child.
Woah woah woah. Seriously? In this, the year 2022, we’re still making movies about assassins who go rogue because they won’t kill a kid?
OK, fine. So anyway, Gosling comes into conflict with Chris Evans’ unhinged mercenary as they’re both sent to retrieve a vital USB drive, and —
Hang on, hang on. No. I’m not having it. And the USB drive? After 60 years ofafter six (and counting) Mission: Impossible movies, a spy movie hinges on a frickin’ thumb drive!
So yeah. On paper, The Gray Man has all the elements of a formulaic spy genre (and I do mean all the elements — there’s about four movies’ worth of stuff going on). Thumb drives. A kidnapped niece. Bureaucrats who are the real villains. Wet teams striding across airfields in body armor. Action scenes cutting to analysts panicking in front of walls of monitors. Tense phone calls in skyscrapers. Rooftop helipads and secure lines and guys making the bullets fall out of a gun before the other guy can shoot him.
But as yet another city name blares across the screen in massive letters, you start to wonder if the filmmakers are mocking the conventions of the spy genre. Clearly directors Joe and Anthony Russo are very self-aware about the type of flick they’re making. The quippy banter and sharp action are heightened and stylized, and just a ton of fun. We get it, they’re glib.
That’s what sets The Gray Man apart from formulaic plods like Extraction or Amazon’s turgid Without Remorse. From the opening scene, in which Gosling goes into battle in a crisp scarlet suit twirling a water pistol, to his silent silhouetted dispatching of a platoon of bodyguards with whatever cutlery comes to hand, the flick has swagger to burn. Don’t be fooled by the title: There’s nothing gray about the cinematography and kinetic camerawork and playful music. The Gray Man is up there with the stylized likes of Atomic Blonde, and might give John Wick a run for his money.
A big part of the film’s success is the star wattage on display, Gosling and Evans (and super-charismatic guest star Dhanush) handling the action heroics and quippy banter with equal assuredness. Gosling plays it relatively straight, although Sierra 6’s real name is Courtland Gentry, which means he has not one but two improbably cool action hero names. Evans hams it up for both of them as a suavely unhinged torturer with a wardrobe of natty knitted polo shirts, like‘s maladjusted little brother. His character, by the way, is called Lloyd Hanson, which is less cool than Sierra 6 but sticks in your mind because someone says it literally every 20 seconds.
I mention the names because Ana de Armas is also in this film, but I’m darned if I could tell you what her character’s called. While the main guys have a backstory (even if Evans’ is just “went to Harvard”), her character doesn’t have any motivating story that I can recall. The script doesn’t even give her much of a personality apart from obligatory super-badassness, and being grumpy when guys yell at her. At least de Armas’ appearance in a Bond filmwas essentially a cameo, but this is a waste of the white-hot star of the moment.
This being an action flick, the many international stopovers lead to violence. It’s all fun and games, obviously, all stylishly shot shootouts and rollicking punch-ups. But then there’s a huge showdown in the streets of a European city. High-velocity rounds destroy homes. High-caliber death machines sweep crowded public squares. You might not see it, but regular normal people going about their everyday lives clearly get killed in horrible ways. In the wake of public shootings in the US, Denmark and Norway (and that’s just this year) this callous ultraviolence hits differently.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s the point. After this apocalyptic battle, the film does not merrily exfil to the next exotic location. Instead, it lingers in a hospital, surrounded by the wounded and dying. Admittedly, this is partly a setup for the next fight. But The Gray Man at least shows a glimmer of thought about the savagery unfolding on screen, about the silver-screen depiction of violence as redemptive and protective, about the pointlessness of it all. It isn’t exactly Drive or Only God Forgives, Gosling’s 2011 and 2013 arthouse subversions (with director Nicolas Winding Refn) of the car chase and crime genres. But there’s definitely a layer of subversive nuance going on here. It’s telling that in this film’s world of espionage, we never see any terrorists or doomsday weapons. The only threat to ordinary folk like you and me is the internal squabbling of various grubby sociopaths jockeying for power no matter who gets caught in the crossfire.
Ultimately, The Gray Man encourages us to enjoy the hell out of a stylish shoot-’em-up where good-looking people go bang-bang, while still nudging us to remember it’s a fantasy. Maybe I’m squinting too hard to suggest this is Netflix’s smartest action film, but it’s definitely one of the most fun.
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