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The Gray Man: Bloated but fun actioner may launch franchise for Netflix

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Jul. 22, 2022 - 10:59 AM

The Gray Man: Bloated but fun actioner may launch franchise for Netflix

Netflix takes another big swing at perfecting the ultimate streaming blockbuster with the James Bond action/parody “The Gray Man.”


Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman

Film Details:

Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfre Woodard, Regé-Jean Page, and Dhanush

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 9 minutes

Streaming now on Netflix

With a reported budget of $200 million, Netflix takes another big swing at perfecting the ultimate streaming blockbuster with the James Bond action/parody “The Gray Man.” The film is directed by the Russo brothers, the team responsible for some of Marvel’s biggest hits.

The success demonstrated in shepherding the final two “Avengers” films showed the Russo’s more than capable of balancing ensemble casts in a heavy special effects-laden project. And where their last movie, 2021’s drug drama “Cherry,” failed to resonate, a return to the action genre definitely agrees with the twosome.

“The Gray Man” will easily fit the bill for action fans. It’s a big, loud, dumb spy-thriller that could become a franchise.

When covert contract killer Six (Ryan Gosling) is retained by the CIA to perform a hit in an exotic location, the job doesn’t go as planned. Six runs from his handlers after learning some disturbing information about the agency. Thinking that “to catch a rogue agent, it takes a rogue” agent, newly minted agency head Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) dispatches dangerous contractor and all-around wing-nut Lloyd Hansen (a mustachioed Chris Evans). This violent and destructive pursuit ain’t gonna end well.

Both men were part of a top-secret program led by the surly Fitzroy (a gray man himself, Billy Bob Thornton) that takes criminals and puts them to work as covert operatives. These “gray” men perform tasks outside agency authority giving the government the ability to deny their actual existence. There’s no 401K for these killing machines.

Six, named because Seven was taken, was previously incarcerated for a somewhat understandable murder. And while his skill in the art of death is unquestionable, he does have a moral code. Therefore, he tries to keep collateral damage to a minimum. However, Lloyd could care less about the welfare of bystanders.

In the ever-escalating chase that follows, there’s no doubt that these two proud purveyors of bedlam ruin innocent lives. And the action set-pieces get bigger and bigger, leading to ludicrous levels of chaos and mayhem.

The set-up for “The Gray Man” is excellent. We are quickly introduced to Six and his recruitment. Since this is well-traveled cinematic territory, viewers will immediately understand the spy world in which Six is inserted. Six is good-looking and deadly. And the ever stoic Gosling sells his character well.

His polar opposite in many ways is his nemesis, Lloyd Hansen. A certifiable lunatic, Lloyd is also quite full of himself. Because the film pitches over into almost out-right parody, the silly mustache that Evans wears makes him into a stereotypical villain. But while Lloyd is a fair match for Six, his relative clumsy, wrecking ball manner hamstrings him against Six’s more elegant spy craft.

If only we got more elegance and less barbaric action sequences, “The Gray Man” would have been a far better movie. But instead of taking a simple premise and building complex layers into what could be an intricate universe, the Russo brothers lean into their blockbuster roots and go big before going bigger.

Therefore, the film’s closing third is chock full of unhinged craziness. And as sportscars pursue trains and a terrorist group mows down batches of innocents, I found myself drifting a bit. Ultimately, I forgot why Six was sought in the first place. Oh, yeah, they want him dead because he knows too much, but what is it that he really knows? And is all the collateral damage worth it?

Obviously, viewers shouldn’t dwell too much on the efficacy of any decision made by the characters in “The Gray Man.” It would be impossible to make perfect sense of any one motivation. After all, if Six gave up, he’d probably save many lives in the near term; however, there’s the future to worry about. The bad guys can’t win, right?

Gosling is the big star here. He’s an excellent choice for America’s answer to James Bond. But I thought that role was already filled by “Mission: Impossible” leader Ethan Hunt. The self-aware humor sets “The Gray Man” apart from Tom Cruise’s blockbuster franchise.

At one point, Six mentions that Seven wasn’t available for his name. The Russos use these little comedic touches to get away with murder. We are not supposed to believe that their characters operate in our world. This story takes place in an alternate universe where human life is less valued. And if you turn off your moral compass, there’s fun to be had with “The Gray Man.”

Part of that fun is watching Ana de Armas flex her action muscles. Few would argue that she was one of the best things, if not the best thing, about the last Bond film, “No Time To Die.” That sequence in Havana was terrific, causing fans to swoon. Here she shows us more of the same, but without the sexual tension that proved quirky and provocative in the Bond setting.

Indian film star Dhanush shows up as one of the contract killers called up by Lloyd. His character makes a formidable foil for Six. And he’s utterly fabulous with slick suits and a balletic manner of fighting. I suspect we will see more of him in the inevitable “Gray Man” sequel and other English language Hollywood projects.

One frustrating aspect of “The Gray Man” is the fight sequences. While Dhanush’s conflicts are fun to watch, as he almost dances around Six, there are stretches where the action looks like something from a video game. This visual approach isn’t necessarily flawed, as immersive video game animation has exceeded what we often see in movies. Still, the way the camera ramps up and ramps down is distracting.

Comparisons to “John Wick” here expose the lack of weight of these fight sequences. Where Wick appears to be delivering (and taking) blows, the punches thrown in “The Gray Man” don’t seem to have a visceral impact. It’s like watching a cartoon, at times.

Had the Russos kept their action a little more grounded, like much of the “Wick” films, I think “Gray Man” would have felt less of a parody for me. But since we are continually bombarded by so much ridiculous action, I lost any emotional connection to the characters and their plight.

“The Gray Man” is a fun, brainless actioner that might help Netflix in the near term, but with the streamer struggling to maintain Wall Street confidence, the question is whether it justifies its staggering budget. My feeling is that less would have been more.