Gray Man, The (United States, 2022)July 21, 2022
Another Netflix would-be blockbuster, another disappointment. According to reports, The Gray Man cost the streaming company close to $200M, which puts it alongside Red Notice as having an MCU-sized budget. Unlike most MCU films, however, The Gray Man doesn’t deliver the goods. This is puzzling because the directors are Marvel veterans (the Russo brothers) and one of the stars is none other than Captain America (Chris Evans).
Some of the reviews have been unduly harsh. This isn’t a trainwreck of a film. It’s merely lackluster. Had it been made for about $50M with a group of unknown actors, it would have been remarked upon as a forgettable popcorn flick – an acceptable way to waste a couple of hours. It’s about five-sixths of a solidly entertaining action/thriller. The first 100 minutes are flashy and contain moments of tension and excitement. But the final 20 minutes… The climactic battle is an ode to absurdity and testosterone overdrive and is followed by a prolonged denouement that promises additional adventures. As with Red Notice, it appears Netflix has hopes that The Gray Man will spawn a franchise. Initial indications aren’t promising, especially when one considers the enormous price tag.
The story is along the lines of a low-rent James Bond movie blended with a sampling of Bourne, a bit of Mission: Impossible, and a dash of John Wick. Ryan Gosling plays Sierra Six (a codename that comes with a quip: “007 was already taken”), a convicted murderer offered a commuted sentence under one condition: he comes to work for a covert appendage of the CIA (populated by “Gray Men”). His job generally involves assassinations and associated mayhem. Things go well while he’s handled by his initial recruiter, Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), but a change in management puts him under the control of the ambitious, amoral Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) and his assistant, Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick).
During a job, Six comes into possession of an encoded file that contains damning information about Carmichael, and this puts a target on his back. Carmichael brings aboard Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), an “independent contractor” with psychotic tendencies and a Freddy Mercury mustache, to run the operation. Six soon discovers that, beyond fellow agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), he has few allies to help against a mounting army of enemies. The storyline progresses in a globetrotting fashion toward the inevitable showdown between Six and Lloyd.
Putting aside the major misstep at the climax (something that’s more of a problem because of how it’s handled than that it happens), The Gray Man unspools as a commonplace action-oriented thriller that simply doesn’t offer anything sufficiently new or original to rise above the noise level of the genre. The Russos clearly know how to choreograph and execute chases, fights, and other generic pieces of the pie. The tilt toward CGI over practical effects and real stunt work is unfortunate but not unexpected. From a technical standpoint, the filmmakers do a good enough job building suspense and crafting exciting moments but the lack of a compelling storyline keeps the movie from attaining escape velocity.
The cast is made for stargazers with A-listers Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans facing off against one another with a strong supporting list of names: Billy Bob Thornton, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Alfre Woodard, up-and-coming Rege-Jean Page, and standout Indian star Dhanush (whose small part as Lone Wolf is one of the best things The Gray Man has to offer). Everyone except Gosling and Evans is underused while Evans plays his part on the edge of self-parody. He would have been more at home in a Deadpool sequel than here.
By (mostly) bypassing theaters (although there is one-week limited run), The Gray Man doesn’t have to worry about maxing out first-weekend box office numbers. Name recognition alone will guarantee a big streaming audience but these are emptier calories than usual for an action movie. Despite being well-crafted on a technical level, the project as a whole is simply too generic to get excited about. It doesn’t answer the question of whether Netflix will ever be able to produce a big-budget production worthy of the huge sums of money invested. The platform’s best titles have generally been smaller, more artistic, and less mainstream. The Gray Man is part of an unflattering pattern where creativity plays second fiddle to algorithms.
Gray Man, The (United States, 2022)
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Henwick, Dhanush, Alfre Woodard, Rege-Jean Page, Julia Butters
Screenplay: Joe Russo and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on the book by Mark Greaney
Cinematography: Stephen F. Windon
Music: Henry Jackman
U.S. Distributor: Netflix