Directing team the Russos (brothers Joe and Anthony) are no strangers to adapting works for cinema. If their work on 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier wasn’t enough to gain your attention, their directing of the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Infinity Saga” — Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) — certainly established the directing pair as an esteemed team. Since the end of their tenure with the MCU, the duo created their production company AGBO from which to create or support projects that excite them, such as Sam Hargrave’s Extraction (2020) on Netflix and their own film Cherry (2021) for Apple TV+. Their latest AGBO project is an adaptation of Mark Greaney’s 2009 novel The Gray Man from a script by frequent Russo collaborators Christopher Markus (Avengers: Endgame) and Stephen McFeely (Avengers: Endgame) and featuring a stacked cast lead by superstar trio Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049), Chris Evans (The Losers), and Ana de Armas (No Time to Die). Freed from the often-rigid constraints of the MCU, the Russos are at their most unrestrained, unleashing a film whose dynamism often overtakes the more laser-focused elements of this solid summertime action-thriller.
In prison for murder, the man now known as Six (Gosling) is recruited by Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) for a special unit within the military run known as Sierra, a group that operates within the gray areas of the law. Years later, there’s a new boss in charge, Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), who’s not fond of the Sierra program and angles to remove Six when the agent appears to go rogue after a mission. But to catch a highly-trained killer, sometimes you need someone similarly minded. To wit, Carmichael brings in the sociopathic Lloyd Hansen (Evans), a washed-out CIA agent who runs a private firm. With few allies and things getting more personal by the moment, Six, a man who sees every altercation as “just another Thursday,” must neutralize Lloyd before collateral damage becomes too great.
Unlike other recent Netflix action film Red Notice (2021), not only does The Gray Man look like a theatrical release, absent the symmetrical cinematographic style that afflicts many Netflix Original releases, but it trades more CG-lead action sequences for moments that not only look realistic in staging and setting, but continually move the story forward beyond “oh shiny!” audience reactions. In this way, The Gray Man feels more like Bourne Identity (2002) or even the latest Bond film No Time to Die (2021), each using action to communicate motive, drive character development, or otherwise find ways to energize drama. It certainly helps that the film is led by a cast more than capable of taking on the physical, comedic, and emotional moments the script requires, sometimes all at once, without feeling false or put-on. Gosling has some experience with action, but the degree he’s pushed to here demonstrates a natural gift for stunt work that is elevated by a performance that is not only situationally funny but is also character specific given Six is a man of few words. Conversely, Evans’s Lloyd akin to the actor’s prior role of highly-trained soldier Jensen (the underrated The Losers) deciding to break bad, utilizing Evans’s proven physicality and often-underrecognized skill with comedic timing to create a character that’s a fair match for the supposed mythic abilities of Six. Too rarely does a film create opponents who actually meet the expectations set forth by pronounced reputation, and The Gray Man provides just enough moments between the two characters for the actors to not only play opposite each other, but for the audience to come to believe in their respective deadly talents. Perhaps my favorite thing about the film is the way the lifestyle these characters inhabit allows for deadpan line delivery within situations that would be heightened to the everyday individual. Nothing like seeing two highly-skilled individuals reduced to the sounds and dialogue of the mildly inconvenienced when a grenade joins the fray.
Side note: While citing Bourne Identity seems dated with so many more recent films which could convey a similar action/thriller sensibility, there are elements of the narrative which a Robert Ludlum fan (the original writer of the Bourne character) will recognize. For this reviewer, a fan of the super-serious Bourne series of novels, as well as the comical The Road to Gandolfo, The Gray Man possesses an older spy thriller sensibility amid the more modern trappings of political intrigue and sexual politics. In fact, where it took the 007 franchise several decades to catch up with modernity compared to Ludlum’s Bourne, The Gray Man offers the women in the narrative equitable footing so that, gender-aside, each are given moments of badassery and vulnerability. De Armas and Alfre Woodward (Captain America: Civil War), particularly, are given superb moments to shine, while, sadly, Jessica Henwick (The Matrix: Resurrections) spends the bulk of her time dishing out exposition or shouting into the wind (metaphorically). Thankfully, Page’s Carmichael is basically a mustache-twirling villain, so he feels as equally an empty shirt as she. In retrospect, the people representing the CIA really are showcased as weak in the face of their operatives, a strange yet important message that one shouldn’t dismiss their team (even those they mark as R.E.D.) because they were trained for a reason.
Extra side note: To the very vocal fans of actor Dhanush (Maaran), his role as contractor Avik San is small. It’s very much a spotlight sequence and the screenwork he puts in makes me think the actor is destined to end up in the John Wick series before that franchise closes its doors, but don’t go into the film with larger expectations than, maybe, five minutes of screen time (and that’s pushing it). That said, the Dhanush’s Avik San is another great example of a character being used for a specific purpose smartly.
Where my reaction to the film becomes more muted is in the more technical aspects of the whole. It smartly starts with Six and Fitzroy meeting, us allowed to watch the recruitment go down, before we observe the mission that kickstarts the thriller aspects. Where the pacing could be improved would be by switching a flashback into chronological order as it would instill a greater sense of flow instead of feeling like placing a pause in the action so that the audience can catch up to where Six is emotionally. This is less of an issue with the brief “memory” sequences which help to illustrate why Six remains as calm as he does amid chaos and injury as they each come and go quickly. But the way Julia Butters’s Claire is introduced, it almost feels like an “oh wait, you don’t know who this is!” beat instead of something that carries weight. As the Claire-Six dynamic is detrimental to the film as a whole, something which the script and performances nail by the end, the rough start puts a bit of a crimp in the otherwise solid flow.
When The Gray Man maintains the flow, the film as a whole makes the absolutely most out of its capable cast and intriguing script. That said, the breaks in flow often come from editing choices that remove the audience from where the action is and an overuse of drones that reduce immersion. The frequent drone usage is a stylistic choice that does little more than offer a different form of camerawork not offering emotional investment, a useful change in perspective, or an enhancement of the action at play save for one moment in the climatic battle when the speedy zooming camera smartly ties to what the characters are doing. The majority of fight sequences coordinated by James Young (Black Widow) and Daniel Hernandez (The Old Guard) brilliantly use space to awe the audience and advance plot. However, the editing of these sequences sometimes gets in the way, such as the fight Six engages in during his initial mission and during a later airplane sequence. In both instances, the editing frequently disrupts the flow of the movements from the actors making it either difficult to follow *or* cutting away from the action entirely. In the former sequence, the lack of clarity could be excused by the close proximity of combat in an area with a great deal of smoke and fire. However, in the latter, the action inside the plane is cut away from to show outside the plane as well as inside the cockpit when neither cutaway does anything to increase tension, whereas the stunt work inside the plane is so smartly constructed and executed that it borders on beautiful. Gratefully, later sequences are so cleverly designed and executed that one is willing to forgive the weakness and go along for the ride.
If your only point of reference to Netflix’s Originals are Red Notice and Bright (2017), I encourage you to remember that they also released Okja (2017), The Night Comes For Us (2018), The Old Guard (2020), Da 5 Bloods (2020), and The Harder They Fall (2021).The streamer has far more hits on their hands than misses, it’s just that they put out so much that the misses take up far more space in public consciousness. While The Gray Man demonstrates that the Russos probably need a tighter hand when directing (and I’m someone who loved their shifting styles in Cherry (2021)), what works in the film — performances, mostly smart scripting, and strong action choreography — outshines what doesn’t. If this is the first in a franchise for the streamer, I’d gladly saddle up for whatever adventure comes next. With luck, the environment will be safer where I might even be able to see it in the theater, a place where The Gray Man could really do some numbers.
In select theaters July 15th, 2022.
Available for streaming on Netflix July 22nd, 2022.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.