I guess dumping on Netflix is a thing these days. While much of the bad press the company is receiving of late is probably warranted, and their homegrown movie productions have been more miss than hit, all the negative reviews their latest film, THE GRAY MAN, is getting is a bit over-the-top. That’s certainly being borne out by the overwhelmingly positive reaction coming from the audience. So who do I stand with on this one?
THE GRAY MAN is the first entry in what will probably be a multi-film franchise directed by the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, the same guys who brought us two CAPTAIN AMERICA films and two AVENGERS films including the big daddy of them all, AGENGERS: ENDGAME. Since then, they’ve gone over to Netflix to make CHERRY with MARVEL alumnus Tom Holland, and Joe wrote the screenplay for EXTRACTION, which starred another MARVEL alum, Chris Hemsworth. Neither of those films was very highly received. This time around, the brothers have brought in the second-best looking Chris, as one of my colleagues refers to him, but instead of being the hero, Chris Evans plays not just a bad guy but a memorable bad guy.
The story revolves around a character known as Sierra-Six (Ryan Gosling, FIRST MAN; BLADE RUNNER 2049; LA LA LAND), who is a Black Ops hitman for the CIA. For many years, Six has been handled by Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton, THE JUDGE) but his mentor has now retired and the Sierra program is being headed up by a young upstart named Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page, SYLVIE’S LOVE; TV’s BRIDGERTON). Six has been sent to Bangkok to take out a bad player who, he’s been told, has been selling state secrets. When the hit goes awry, he learns that his target was someone else in the Sierra program, a man codenamed Four. Before Four dies, he gives Six a mini USB stick and tells Six that he’s probably next. It turns out that the man was right and it’s not long before Six is on the run as Carmichael brings in a psychopathic contract killer named Lloyd Hansen (Evans) to tie up all the loose ends and retrieve the USB stick. Lloyd immediately abducts Fitzroy’s niece Claire (Julia Butters, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD; A FAMILY MAN), which puts pressure on Fitzroy to bring in Six, but Six has some help on his side including Berlin CIA agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas, NO TIME TO DIE; KNIVES OUT) and Fitzroy’s former colleague at the CIA, Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard, ANNABELLE).
To be fair to the naysayers, there’s more than a few problems with this project. For starters, it’s insanely expensive — US$200 million — and it shows as the action goes from Bangkok (okay, that was probably shot in the US but there were pyrotechnics galore there) to Vienna to Baku to Prague. Along the way, a plane, a train, a fleet of automobiles and most of the Czech Special Forces either get shot up or blown up. While Netflix may recoup its investment, though it’s hard to tell with its algorithm, it’s a huge sum to spend unless you’re fairly confident you’re going to take in at least a half a billion dollars in revenue from it. That’s unlikely to happen. The question then becomes if they do more films in this series, will they have the same production budget and, if they don’t, will the franchise suffer? The second big problem is the story, which is completely predictable as soon as Six gets handed the USB stick. It’s become cinema’s new manila dossier of incriminating information except that it’s password protected… but, of course, the password can easily be cracked. Then there’s the trope of the sickly child that our hero must protect at all costs. The bottom line is that there’s no new ground broken here. We’ve seen it all before.
However, and this is a big however, the action never lets up and the performances are, for the most part, top-notch. Gosling is excellent as the good hearted, MacGyver-ish, paid assassin. Okay, we’ve seen better from both de Armas and Page but neither had a lot to work with here. Thonton and Woodard always do good work but it’s Evans who steals the film with his pornstache, short on the sides and greased on the top haircut, and torso-hugging double-knit polo shirt. He also has the film’s best line when he throws some shade at his co-star’s upcoming movie role. I’ll concede, though, that someone who is standing close to an exploded hand grenade and then gets shot with a flare gun causing him to lose a couple fingers would probably not have a lot of fight left in him but, hey, THE GRAY MAN is well-made, mindless, summertime entertainment. You’re allowed to suspend all your belief in reality for a few hours.
THE GRAY MAN leaves unanswered the biggest question of who the person pulling the strings is. We can also assume there are other Sierra assets floating around, so we can be sure we’ll be seeing some of them as well as Six in the future.
THE GRAY MAN is streaming now on Netflix. Ignore the critics (other than me, of course) and check it out.
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