When a shadowy CIA agent uncovers damning agency secrets, he’s hunted across the globe by a sociopathic rogue operative who’s put a bounty on his head. Hector DeJean’s review is available here. The Gray ManYou can stream the movie starring Ryan Gosling & Chris Evans on Netflix now!
In his book Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud points out that hand-drawn static-image super hero stories can’t compete against first-person power fantasies presented in film, video games, or on television—that action is much more exciting on a screen than in a comic book. If you don’t believe him, check out how many people have seen the Avengers movies of Joe and Anthony Russo and compare that to the number of Avengers comics sold. The Russos and their ilk have made the genre of high-sheen kinetic action movies—of which super hero films are a subset—the most exemplary film trend of the past twenty years. The 1930s had their screwball comedies. The 50s had Westerns. The 90s had quirky indy films with great soundtracks. And the years that followed 2000 were a blur of gun fights, knife battles, and aerial collisions involving helicopters and long-haul semis.
Maybe that’s the way you look at it. The Gray Man, The Netflix new adaptation Mark Greaney’s series of thriller novels and one of the most expensive films in the streaming service’s history, is that it’s the Russos’ industry statement, their self-conscious attempt to make a movie stripped of everything except the essential part: the action. And there’s so much overwhelming action that it’s hard to say if the movie contains much of anything else, aside from some moments of sly, reflective humor. The movie is misclassified as an espionage film because it involves assassination plots and the CIA. However, the inclusion of intelligence agencies is only there to justify all the hardware. There’s a hidden thumb drive with incriminating information on it, but it’s the dictionary definition of a ‘macguffin.’ There’s excellent scenery, though I wonder if the whole thing would have been the same if they’d filmed it on a sound stage. You can see endless combative activity. Some of it is top-tier and it all joltingly walloping the senses with rapid strobe lights.
The mongoose and cobra in this particular scenario are gun-savvy secret agents Court Gentry aka Sierra Six, employed by the CIA’s ultracovert Sierra program, and freelancer Lloyd Hansen. Six is a kinder, gentler killing machine, a thoughtful guy who wonders how he’ll get out of this racket and find some peaceful last act for himself. Lloyd, on the other hand, is the type of man who will happily tell you that Hitler had some good ideas. Ryan Gosling plays Six with his typical hard-to-read handsomeness, while Chris Evans—Captain America himself—dives headfirst into the role of Lloyd, devouring scenery, gleefully torturing bound victims, and garnishing each serving of menace with staggering helpings of sarcasm. Lloyd has an offensive fashion sense, one of the most appalling mustaches in recent cinema history, and the infuriating habit of calling people “cupcake” and “sunshine.” He reminds me a lot of Kevin Kline’s character in Wanda the FishA mix of humor and psychopathy, which is held together by a lot of self-importance. Choose a side, viewer.
One of the biggest surprises isThe Gray ManIt turns out that Evans and Gosling are not the most beautiful people in the movie. The film also stars Ana de Armas, Rege-Jean Page. Armas plays the role of agent Dani Miranda and Page is Denny Carmichael who just took over the Sierra Program. Will tension develop between Sierra Six’s spymaster and Page? We see that we already know from the beginning that the men don’t see eye-to-eye and will soon make their mutual disapproval public. When Six decides he doesn’t need to talk to Carmichael anymore, Carmichael hires Lloyd to bring him in, by any means necessary. Jessica Henwick, who was the best part of Netflix’s Iron Fist, plays Carmichael’s co-worker Suzanne Brewer, who voices strong reservations about employing Lloyd, but mainly comes off as wanting to kill Chris Evans’ good time.
I don’t want to refer to the film’s Story, but what happens over the course of its running time is less of a linear buildup-development-resolution structure and more like a series of things that happen, initiated when Six, in Bangkok to kill a CIA target, discovers that a predecessor in the Sierra program has a drive containing incriminating info. Then he’s in Turkey. Lloyd travels to Azerbaijan in search of Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), the founder and creator of the Sierra program. Then there’s a flashback to when Six was in Hong Kong. Then everyone’s in Vienna. Six and Miranda then travel to Prague. It is very easy to feel that the changes in scenery are arbitrary. I tried to find an explanation but kept coming back to the reason for the constant movement from A to Z to C.
The dialogue is also generic, and doesn’t sound like how I would imagine the operators behind an international intelligence organization would talk. Carmichael says to Suzanne at some point, “If you like breathing, you might want to fix this,” and variations of that are pretty much all he says. Only Evans’ endless stream of smug put-downs, and Six’s scenes with Fitzroy’s niece (Julia Butters) give us a break from the “your boy won’t be able to walk ten feet without getting his head blown off” lines.
Croatia is where the story reaches its climax, and if you couldn’t figure out that the resolution would involve a man-to-man pummeling between Six and Lloyd, I don’t know what to tell you. The inevitable final fight scene has the appearance of a MMA match, and I have to say that brawling brute Chris Evans isn’t as much fun as sneering barbed commentator Chris Evans.
Here’s the thing, though; for all the flaws I’ve enumerated above,The Gray Man has several stunning action set pieces—a lot of them. For every half-glimpsed, jerky-camera, poorly-lit ass-whupping, there’s a breathtaking race up and down the streets of a European city as bullets fly and cars careen into each other. The chase through Prague is especially exhilarating–Six blasts away at his latest attackers on a runaway streetcar, as Miranda swerves her car along side it, looping around more goons with an amount of artillery that surpassed anything on D-Day. That, I believe, is the point. The story and the characters don’t matter as much as the propulsion. The Russos set out to deliver the action, and that’s indeed what they did, maybe better than anyone else could have. Joe Russo, Don Thai Theerathada, Benjamin Hicquel and Daniel Hernandez are their fight and stunt coordinators. They offer a comical movie audience an action feast that is free of all the trimmings.
If you do enjoy The Gray Man, you’re in luck—Netflix has already announced a sequel and a spinoff series.