For the most part, Netflix’s The Gray Man is a damn delight. It’s a throwback to the days when studios could safely rely on throwing a couple of A-listers at an action script and some big explosions, give it a competent director, and have a hit on their hands. Frequently more fun and escapist than some of the recent James Bond films, it’s also based on a book character (though not highly advertised as such). Ryan Gosling plays Mark Greaney’s freelance assassin and former CIA operative Court Gentry, a name the movie largely eschews in favor of his code designation, Sierra Six. For Gosling fans whose favorite movie was Drive, this feels like a slightly pumped up, dumbed-down version of that character, with significantly more to say about how he doesn’t actually have more to say.
Sure, at a $200 million budget—making it the most expensive Netflix original ever—the film feels overpriced. When Joe and Anthony Russo get that much money to make something, especially when it’s written by Avengers: Endgame duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, it feels like there ought to be exploding planets and flying people shooting power blasts from their bodies. But hell, everything’s twice the price nowadays. Have you seen your grocery bill lately?
But if exploding planes and people falling through the air while strangling each other will suffice, it’s all good. The Russo brothers don’t necessarily have the world’s most discernible style as directors, besides some annoying stutter-vision fights in their Marvel movies, Civil War being the worst offender. The Gray Man, however, shows what they may have been building to with that. These fight scenes frequently take a subjective turn, like one that gives audiences the perspective of Gosling getting a mild concussion, or the way the chaos of a plane coming to pieces distorts everything. It’s more visually Bourne than Gladiator, and a definite step up, fighting-wise, from Captain America sequels.
This is provable largely because Captain America himself, Chris Evans, is here to fight, albeit as a villain. In a role that at times seems written for Nicolas Cage—especially when he yells at fresh corpses and kicks them—Evans dons a “trash stache” and white pants to play Lloyd Hansen, a douchey, sociopathic independent contractor who does CIA-style dirty work with little regard for protocol or laws. America’s ass has become America’s asshole. Gosling’s Six, a CIA hitman who discovers some damning secrets about his own employers, becomes the target of both the legit CIA and their not-so-legit associate in Lloyd.
The fairly simple story spans the globe, evidently so that the Russos can stage nifty action sequences in different countries. An early fight sequence in a Bangkok fireworks array is particularly giddy fun, while a European train chase involves Six atop a runaway locomotive, using the mirrored sides of skyscrapers he rushes past to target his enemies below. There’s a bit of a cheat during the big climax when the fog rolls back to suddenly reveal a major scenic location we’ve never seen before, but it’s so hilariously over-the-top that few furrowed brows should interrupt the audience’s action ecstasy. (The dialogue, however, can get a little too Adolescent Tough Guy 101 at times, featuring lines like, “If you like breathing, you might want to fix this.”)
Greaney’s original plot has been altered somewhat; in place of an English mentor figure for Six, we get Billy Bob Thornton, initially appearing in flashback in a heinous toupee, relishing every syllable of the “Bubblicious Watermelon Wave” he offers Gosling as a rare prison treat. Once the movie shifts to the present and Thornton acts his age, he’s less amusing but no less compelling, bringing a layer of resigned masochism to his life as a company man. Rege-Jean Page, who’s been discussed as a possible future James Bond, proves he’s at least up to being one of the super spy’s villains, as the man behind Lloyd’s awful antics; Jessica Henwick and Ana de Armas play well against him as coworkers sick of their boys club counterparts.
But it’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s Julia Butters who once again proves to be a secret weapon, as the young, pacemaker-laden hostage whom Six must ultimately save. We need to believe this laconic executioner can bond with a literally heart-broken girl who lives in brutal isolation, and we do—they’re both hurt children, but only one is dealing with it at the appropriate age.
While superhero movies have conditioned us—and, perhaps, their directors and writers—to expect run times of at least two hours, the pace doesn’t always merit that, and The Gray Man has perhaps one ending too many. That said, I’ll tune in for more Sierra Six movies if they keep making them. Gosling’s one of those actors for whom a recurring action hero role somehow feels long overdue, and the Russos have taken advantage of more than just his good looks and smoldering gazes.