We’re currently pretty spoiled when it comes to cinematic action. The modern action movie is dominated by superheroes, often from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while the James Bond franchise remains strong. This year, however, it feels like many think the game has been changed/the bar has been raised by RRR. That may well be true, but there’s still more than enough room for an old school action film. To that end, Netflix has a potential large scale action franchise on their hands with The Gray Man. A mix of action and thriller, it’s not too dissimilar from what an Americanized Bond outing would look like. With huge production values, star power, and an effective execution of its premise, there’s plenty to like here.
The Gray Man is, essentially, the best dad action movie TNT will never broadcast. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo are at the helm and clearly love these sorts of films. It feels like so many of the elements that make these meat and potatoes bits of entertainment work is contained here. The Russo Brothers are simply able to take it up a notch, with the resources to really go for broke.
When we first meet Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling), the man soon to be known as Sierra Six, he’s a younger man in prison. Visited by Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), it’s clear that the unique reason he landed behind bars has also caused him to be recruited by the CIA. Cut to years later, Fitzroy is retired, but Six is the best operative the agency has. Now directed by Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) and his second in command Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick), he has designs on ending the program, once this latest murder for the good of the nation is completed. Things go sideways, however, and soon Six is on the run.
Needing to keep Six from spilling the secrets he discovered on the mission, Carmichael recruits a psychotic freelancer and former agency man in Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans). With one agent on the hunt for the other, Six teams up Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) to stay alive, keep these secrets safe, and eventually, save Fitzroy’s niece Claire (Julia Butters), who Hansen is holding hostage.
Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans lead an A-list cast that’s arguably overqualified for this sort of film. Gosling plays an occasionally quippy and often weary fugitive in a way that’s almost all star power and charisma. He’s a great action hero, especially when allowed to display personality. This isn’t the iconic cool of Drive, but he’s not playing an anonymous spy, either. Evans is having a blast being a psychotic villain, though it’s arguable that he should have been let off the chain even more. The next level down cast members are far less developed or given attention here, but Ana de Armas is a solid badass, Billy Bob Thornton is an old school professional, Regé-Jean Page oozes smarmy villainy, and Julia Butters shows that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood was no fluke. Jessica Henwick deserves more screen time, but she’s hardly bad, just underserved a bit. Supporting players here include Dhanush, Wagner Moura, Shea Whigham, Alfre Woodard, and more, but it’s the duo of Evans and Gosling who are clearly the focus.
The Russo Brothers lean in to the conventions of the genre, though they certainly do their best to make the action feel epic. Joe Russo actually co-wrote the screenplay with their frequent collaborators, the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, which is an interesting change. The Gray Man was in development for years, so it took the Russos, as well as Markus and McFeely to get things across the finish line. There’s solid pacing for a two hour movie (barring one unnecessary slowdown right before the third act) and some decent quips throughout. Everyone involved knows the film they’re making and seems to be having a good time doing so.
The Gray Man, as mentioned above, is likely to become one of your dad’s favorite flicks. It has no interest in re-inventing the action movie wheel, but starts of a big potential Netflix franchise in a largely compelling manner. Does it all warrant the exorbitant budget? Perhaps not, but that’s not what I’m judging here. Is it an entertaining bit of action cinema? It certainly is.