The Gray Man
Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans bounce off of each other with chalk-and-cheese aplomb in this globe-hopping action-thriller, Netflix's most expensive film to date.
July 14, 2022
It's been four years since Ryan Gosling last graced screens, rocketing to the moon in First Man. No, Barbie set photos pored over on every internet-connected device don't count. Since he played Neil Armstrong, much has happened. There's the obvious off-screen, of course — but then there's Chris Evans farewelling Captain America, and also appearing in Knives Out with the scene-stealing Ana de Armas. After co-starring in Blade Runner 2049 with Gosling back in 2017, she leapt from that Evans-featuring whodunnit to palling around with 007 in No Time to Die. Also during that time, Bridgerton pushed Regé-Jean Page to fame, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood earmarked Julia Butters as a young talent to watch. This isn't just a history lesson on The Gray Man's cast — well, some of them, given that Billy Bob Thornton (Goliath), Jessica Henwick (The Matrix Resurrections), Dhanush (Maaran), Wagner Moura (Shining Girls) and Alfre Woodard (The Lion King) also pop up, plus Australia's own Callan Mulvey (Firebite) — for the hell of it, though.
Back in 2018, before all of the above played out, it's unlikely that this exact film with this exact cast would've eventuated. But plenty of action-thrillers about attempting to snuff out hyper-competent assassins already did flicker across celluloid — both John Wick and Atomic Blonde had already been there and done that, and the Bourne and Bond movies, and countless other predecessors. Still, the combination of this collection of current actors and that familiar setup isn't without its charms in The Gray Man, which makes the leap from the pages of Mark Greaney's 2009 novel to the big and streaming screens. Reportedly Netflix's most expensive movie to date, it lets its two biggest names bounce off of each other with chalk-and-cheese aplomb, and isn't short on globe-hopping action spectacle. The off-the-book spy versus off-the-book spy killer flick is knowing amid all that box-ticking formula, too, although not enough to make its cheesy lines sound smart and savvy.
Gosling plays Court Gentry, aka Sierra Six; "007 was taken," he jokes. Before he's given his codename — before he's paid to do the CIA's dirty work as well — he's in prison for murder, then recruited by Donald Fitzroy (Thornton). Fast-forward 18 years and Six is a huge hit at two things: being a ghost, because he no longer officially exists; and covertly wreaking whatever havoc the government tells him to, including knocking off whichever nefarious figure they need gone. But one stint of the latter leaves him in possession of a USB drive that his arrogant new direct superior Carmichael (Page) will ruthlessly kill to destroy. Actually, to be precise, he'll pay Lloyd Hansen (Evans) of Hansen Government Services to do just that, and to do the dirty work that's too dirty for the criminals-turned-government hitmen in the Sierra program, with Six the number-one target.
If you've seen one espionage-slash-assassin flick that sends a shadowy life-or-death fight bounding around the planet — here, Hong Kong, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Germany and Austria all feature, among other spots — then you've seen The Gray Man's template. Directing duo Joe and Anthony Russo helmed the Marvel Cinematic Universe's versions with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, so they know the drill. That they've seen a heap of other entries in the genre is never question, either. That feeling radiates from the script, which is credited to Joe Russo with seasoned Marvel scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: End Game), and clearly styles its one-liners after superhero banter. Having Gosling and Evans sling it, one playing bearded, silent and virtuous and the other moustachioed, jabbering and unhinged, makes a helluva difference, however.
The silver screen has missed Gosling, and the moody, charismatic brooding he does so well. Thanks to Drive and Only God Forgives, the actor is firmly in his calm-but-deadly, complex-but-smouldering element — and, when Fitzroy's niece Claire (Butters) joins the story, Gosling is also in comfortable The Nice Guys-style territory. That isn't a complaint; he's great at both, reliably and engagingly so. But, again, almost every aspect of The Gray Man recalls something similar or its stars' past work. As he did so memorably in Knives Out, Evans revels in his latest asshole swerve away from The Star Spangled Man with a Plan, spitting out his smirking dialogue with relish. (The trash 'stash and skin-tight wardrobe are new, but suit the psychopathic vibe that Lloyd is wrapped in as snug as spandex.) That at least 50 shades of this feature have filled other films before can't be shaken, and yet that fact never blows up the movie.
Explosions aren't lacking, given the storyline. Neither are setpieces of varying action-flick ridiculousness to house them in, as well as such a hefty dose of transport-related mayhem that the Fast and Furious movies might get envious. There's nothing grey in colour about the first big action extravaganza, staged in Bangkok amid a gleaming nightclub and bursting fireworks — and the Russos' best shootouts, fights and frays boast a sense of playfulness, just like the back-and-forth between Gosling and Evans. Still, some lively lurches stumble. A "Ken doll" quip is too calculated to crib that Barbie mania, and when the setpiece setting ante gets upped to include a hedge maze, it's yet another reminder of riches elsewhere on celluloid. That said, Netflix also previously made the abhorrent Red Notice, the last film badged as its most expensive ever. Next to that atrocious example of cobbling together well-worn parts and plastering them over with megastars, The Gray Man naturally looks like a masterpiece.
The Gray Man isn't a masterpiece, though. If it was — rather than being entertaining despite showing the easy dots it's connecting, and its seams — the slickly shot picture would make full use of its entire cast. The film is all the better for having de Armas, Page and the like in it, but they all scream for more screentime (and for better-fleshed-out characters), which may come for some in future instalments. As his mentor Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan saga did, Greaney's books have spawned followups. On the screen, both a sequel and a prequel were reportedly greenlit by Netflix before The Gray Man even reached audiences. Knowing that this is meant to be a franchise-starter doesn't justify its love of formula, or hide it, but it also doesn't detract from Gosling or Evans, or the dazzling destruction around them.
The Gray Man screens in cinemas Down Under from Thursday, July 14, and is available to stream via Netflix from Friday, July 22.
Image: Paul Abell/Netflix.