Released: 22nd July
Seen: 24th July
Netflix has had a pretty bad year, hell a bad few years if you really want to think about it. For starters they’re just having to deal with every studio they used to work with pulling their product and opening up their own streaming service, which they responded to by raising their prices. This is partially why the number of subscribers has fallen, though you could also blame that on things like regularly platforming transphobic comedians or their seeming lack of quality control. So maybe now is not the best time for Netflix to be ramping up their budgets and trying to pull off the 200-million dollar blockbuster epics… though if they have to do it, at least The Gray Man is enjoyable enough but they certainly can’t afford to do many more of these.
The Gray Man exists in a world where the CIA has a special program where they basically create their own Suicide Squad, letting out a bunch of assorted criminals who are given expert training to become killers and work for the CIA. This is a plan that couldn’t possibly go wrong… until it goes wrong. It goes wrong when one of the members of this little program, Six (Ryan Gosling) is given the job of killing someone accused of selling state secrets. Turns out the person selling secrets used to be a part of the program that Six is a part of and the secrets he’s trying to get out could be a problem for CIA official Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) who would be implicated in a whole mess of war crimes, even more war crimes than is standard for people in the CIA.
Six takes this information and decides to go on the run in order to try and figure out how to decrypt all the information and get it to those who can do something useful with it. This would be a problem for Carmichael and so he decides to call on one of the agency’s more extreme assets, that being Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a sociopath with no moral boundaries to prevent him from getting his target. So begins a grand battle between a man with nothing to lose and a man with nothing stopping him, surely this will go well for everyone who is anywhere near them at any point.
As one might expect from a film made by the Russo Brothers, The Gray Man is absolutely soaking in glorious action beats. Say what you will about this pair of directors (and we will in a bit), they know how to make an action scene work spectacularly. There are several genuinely incredible moments during this film, from an all-out war in the middle of Prague to a stealthy sneaking through a historic building where fights have to be quick and quiet. They know when to give each person involved in the fights a win, when to break for a comedic moment to let the audience catch their breath and how to up the ante until it just can’t be upped any more. For pure bombast and power, The Gray Man shows that these directors are top of their game when it comes to delivering high-quality action.
The Gray Man also really shows off an impressive visual flair, which is impressive for a movie that’s moving this fast. It’s really good at making sure you know where everyone is when needed, its action is easy to follow and often has a few fun little flairs that keep it moving fast. There’s a lot of drone work in this film that kind of felt like what Ambulance was trying to do, except the Russos are better filmmakers than Bay and know how to use those shots just enough to get the message across (seriously there’s a beautiful drone shot that goes from an establishing shot of a hospital into the building to find our heroes and it’s just a perfect use of drone footage). It excels at using the visuals to keep things going as much as it can.
It also helps that The Gray Man’s cast is bringing their all, from Ryan Gosling effortlessly carrying everything with a sense of power that just radiates off him, to Ana De Armas as a CIA agent who teams up with Six. She ends up having a lot of fun beats and really pops in to give the film some flair. Of course Regé-Jean Page and Jessica Henwick make for a fantastic pair of high-level CIA people trying to keep things under control and they certainly give the film much-needed gravitas but to the surprise of no one, it’s Chris Evans running in as the villain of the film who is the most delightful. He’s funny, intimidating, charming, terrifying and unpredictable as hell. You can tell that Evans is clearly having the time of his life finally getting to do something that’s as far away from Captain America as you can get, it’s the start of his villain era and god someone better get this man to do more villainy.
However, what The Gray Man has in bombast it lacks in pacing. Things are just going a mile a minute, we’re running through the movie like there’s a Doberman chasing after us and by the time you get to like one of the many assorted side characters who pop up throughout the film, they’re already dead or on the way out. There’s very little time to breathe, only in the brief moments a joke has been thrown into an action scene but other than that it’s just constantly going. Sure the action scenes being well assembled helps give the film a sense of rising and falling, but it’s almost just action scene after action scene with minimal time to really deal with these characters.
The lack of time with the characters just as characters means that, at times, they kind of lean into just being a little generic. Well acted, but generic. Six is your standard hero in an action film who can really fight well but we don’t learn much about him. It’s implied that what makes him stand out is his morality, being a good guy who did a bad thing that got him in prison but we don’t get to know him enough to really see that. We’re told explicitly that Lloyd is a sociopath and just has no morality but there are too many times when he acts like a typical action movie villain, albeit with a fantastically energised performance but one that’s covering for the character being a little more conventional than the text implies… basically if you promise me a sociopath, give me a sociopath
If you want a fun simple action film that delivers on bombast with some decent performances then sure, The Gray Man will give you a good time. It’s not a film that’s going to require much thought, it’s a few hours of fun delivered by people who have a good track record of delivering fun. However, it could’ve been so much more than that and really gone for broke… especially considering the 200 million budget which is definitely not visible on the screen. It’s probably not going to be the start of a bankable franchise, but sometimes you just want a bit of mindless action fluff to help kill time and this will give you a fairly good time.