Among the biggest (and most expensive) Netflix movies of 2022 is “The Gray Man”. The big-budgeted star-studded action whopper from the Russo brothers sports a hefty $200 million budget. With Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, and Ana de Armas highlighting its star power, “The Gray Man” is a major investment for the streaming platform which has suffered its share of losses recently. Netflix needs this blockbuster to work, and for what it’s going for, it actually does.
Anthony and Joe Russo became pretty high-profile filmmakers thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To their credit, they were behind four of the MCU’s very best films; each were massive box office successes. Since moving away from superheroes, the brothers have taken aim at making films for streaming platforms. It’s an interesting choice that they’ve been quick to defend (see Joe’s recent bizarre slamming of those who hold the theater experience in high regard).
The Russos’ first post-MCU venture was the not-so-great Tom Holland film “Cherry”. Now they give it another whirl with “The Gray Man”, a movie co-written by their frequent MCU collaborators, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The film is based on author Mark Greaney’s 2009 debut novel about a former CIA operative who suddenly finds himself targeted by his own government.
The movie opens in 2003 at a Florida state prison where inmate Court Gentry (Gosling) is visited by federal agent Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). After a few pleasantries, Fitzroy tells Court that he’s there on behalf of the government to commute his sentence. Of course there is one pretty significant condition. Court must join the covert CIA Sierra program where he’ll be trained to kill bad guys. “And since you’ve already killed one it shouldn’t be too difficult,” Fitzroy reasons. As you can probably guess, Court agrees.
Jump ahead 18 years. Court (aka Sierra Six) is a seasoned Sierra operative and working a mission in Bangkok with field agent Dani Miranda (de Armas). Things take a turn after he discovers their target is a fellow government assassin designated Sierra Four (Callan Mulvey). In his dying words, Four warns Six that the shifty CIA Chief Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) is crooked and intent on erasing anyone who can prove it. He gives Six a memory drive with incriminating evidence against Carmichael and a number of other high-ranking feds.
Realizing he’s probably next on his government’s kill list, Six skips his extraction and goes off the grid. He contacts his old handler Fitzroy who was pushed into early retirement by Carmichael. Fitzroy reaches out to some old friends to help Six escape. In the meantime, Carmichael grows more nervous and impatient. He calls on Lloyd Hansen (Evans, dressed as if he’s been plucked out of a 1960’s sit-com), a sociopathic contract killer known for his brutal and unhinged methods.
As you can imagine, the injection of Lloyd into the equation leads to violence and chaos. He immediately goes after Fitzroy for leverage, even kidnapping his niece Claire (Julia Butters – the chatty scene-stealer from Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…”) to help lure Six out. Lloyd then puts out a huge bounty on Six’s head and sends it out to hit teams and safe houses around the globe. Sounds like a full-proof approach. But Six proves to be a lot harder to kill than the egotistical Lloyd expected.
Despite Joe Russo’s strange attempt at devaluing the theater experience, there’s no denying that “The Gray Man” would have popped on the big screen. The globetrotting to locations like Vienna, London, Hong Kong, Berlin, and Croatia among others is fun, and the energetic camera of DP Stephen F. Windon gives us plenty of cool shots to enjoy. But the action scenes are the film’s bread-and-butter and the Russos, Windon, the visuals effects team, and the sound designers give us some real bangers that scream for the largest screen possible. The best is an over-the-top yet insanely fun action sequence through the streets of Prague. It’s a blast.
Another plus is how “The Gray Man” handles its villains. Carmichael isn’t another narcissist obsessed with world domination or a lunatic set on global destruction. Instead, he represents something more chilling – the secret lengths our own government protectors might go to hide their abuse of the public’s trust. Murdering police officers, gunning down innocent civilians, dispatching a government-sanctioned psychopath – all acceptable in their efforts to cover their dirty tracks. Granted, the movie isn’t out to make a particularly profound point about it. But it’s a welcomed change from the normal antagonists who populate these kinds of films.
Performance wise, the movie features some pretty good ones. Gosling ratchets down on the emotionless poker-faced persona he has developed over a handful of other grittier action movies but let’s a little humor slip through now and then. And he certainly has the physical chops. Ana de Armas is given a lot more to do here than in her recent James Bond adventure and she makes the most of it. She slips into the background a little too much, but whenever she re-emerges it’s usually with a bang. And I enjoyed seeing Thornton back on screen. He’s a great presence, as is Alfre Woodard who’s terrific in the few moments she’s given.
On the villain side, Page is just the kind of detestable baddie the film needs. He’s never over-the-top and he has this kind of self-serving callousness that makes you hate his guts. Chris Evans gets the film’s showiest role. Outside of Captain America, there’s not a lot on Evans’ resume to get excited about. That said, there is one character type he has always excelled at – the brash, smart-mouthed wise-cracker. It was his signature in films like “The Fantastic Four”, “The Losers”, and even “Knives Out”. Here Evans hams it up in a variation of that role. But there’s a key reason the performance works so well. Rather than let Lloyd turn into a clown, the Russos know when to dial back the silliness and let Evans take the character down some more sinister paths. Without that restraint, Lloyd could have become an annoyance. Instead he’s a formidable antagonist.
The biggest knock on the film is that the story’s entire framework is undeniably simple and familiar. Even with the slightly different flavor of villains, “The Gray Man” is too by-the-books. Rather than take some narrative big swings, the story is content with keeping it conventional. But for those hungry for fast-paced grand-scaled action, the Russos have you covered. The energy is high and the set pieces are massive. Add to it a charisma-rich cast and you have a popcorn movie that may not reinvent the wheel storywise, but that delivers just the kind of fun adrenaline jolt action lovers crave. “The Gray Man” premieres tomorrow (July 22nd) on Netflix.