Review of Netflix’s The Gray Man
In his book Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud points out that hand-drawn static-image super hero stories can’t compete against first-person power fantasies presented in film, video games, or on television—that action is much more exciting on a screen than in a comic book. If you don’t believe him, check out how many people have seen the Avengers movies of Joe and Anthony Russo and compare that to the number of Avengers comics sold. The Russos and their ilk have made the genre of high-sheen kinetic action movies—of which super hero films are a subset—the most exemplary film trend of the past twenty years. The 30s had their screwball comedies, the 50s had their Westerns, the 90s had their quirky indy films with great soundtracks, and the years since 2000 have been a whirlwind of knife fights, gun battles, and aerial collisions between helicopters and long-haul semis.
Maybe the kind way to look at The Gray Man, the new Netflix adaptation of Mark Greaney’s series of thriller novels and one of the most expensive films in the streaming service’s history, is that it’s the Russos’ industry statement, their self-conscious attempt to make a movie stripped of everything except the essential part: the action. And there’s so much overwhelming action that it’s hard to say if the movie contains much of anything else, aside from some moments of sly, reflective humor. Since the movie involves the CIA and assassination plots, it might be mislabeled as an espionage film, but really the inclusion of intelligence agencies is just there to provide a reason for all the hardware. There’s a hidden thumb drive with incriminating information on it, but it’s the dictionary definition of a ‘macguffin.’ There’s excellent scenery, though I wonder if the whole thing would have been the same if they’d filmed it on a sound stage. And there is endless combative activity, some of it top-tier and all of it jolting, walloping the senses like rapid strobe lights.
The mongoose and cobra in this particular scenario are gun-savvy secret agents Court Gentry aka Sierra Six, employed by the CIA’s ultracovert Sierra program, and freelancer Lloyd Hansen. Six is a kinder, gentler killing machine, a thoughtful guy who wonders how he’ll get out of this racket and find some peaceful last act for himself. Lloyd, by contrast, is the kind of guy who would happily explain to you that Hitler actually had some good ideas. Ryan Gosling plays Six with his typical hard-to-read handsomeness, while Chris Evans—Captain America himself—dives headfirst into the role of Lloyd, devouring scenery, gleefully torturing bound victims, and garnishing each serving of menace with staggering helpings of sarcasm. Lloyd has an offensive fashion sense, one of the most appalling mustaches in recent cinema history, and the infuriating habit of calling people “cupcake” and “sunshine.” He reminds me a lot of Kevin Kline’s character in A Fish Called Wanda, a mix of psychopathy and humor, held together by a massive amount of self-importance. Pick a side, viewer.
One of the big surprises in The Gray Man is that Gosling and Evans are actually not the most gorgeous people in this movie, which also stars Ana de Armas and Rege-Jean Page. Armas is agent Dani Miranda, and Page is their boss Denny Carmichael, who recently took over the Sierra program. Will there be tension between Sierra Six and his new spymaster? As it turns out, we know almost from the first scene that the two men do not see eye to eye and will soon take their mutual contempt public. When Six decides he doesn’t need to talk to Carmichael anymore, Carmichael hires Lloyd to bring him in, by any means necessary. Jessica Henwick, who was the best part of Netflix’s Iron Fist, plays Carmichael’s co-worker Suzanne Brewer, who voices strong reservations about employing Lloyd, but mainly comes off as wanting to kill Chris Evans’ good time.
I don’t want to refer to the film’s story, but what happens over the course of its running time is less of a linear buildup-development-resolution structure and more like a series of things that happen, initiated when Six, in Bangkok to kill a CIA target, discovers that a predecessor in the Sierra program has a drive containing incriminating info. Then he’s in Turkey. Lloyd goes to Azerbaijan to fetch the founder of the Sierra program, Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). Then there’s a flashback to when Six was in Hong Kong. Then everyone’s in Vienna. Then Six and Miranda go to Prague. Very early on, the scenery changes start to feel arbitrary, and while there is an explanation for them, I kept having to remind myself of the reasons for all this moving from A to B to C.
The dialogue is also generic, and doesn’t sound like how I would imagine the operators behind an international intelligence organization would talk. Carmichael says to Suzanne at some point, “If you like breathing, you might want to fix this,” and variations of that are pretty much all he says. Only Evans’ endless stream of smug put-downs, and Six’s scenes with Fitzroy’s niece (Julia Butters) give us a break from the “your boy won’t be able to walk ten feet without getting his head blown off” lines.
Croatia is where the story reaches its climax, and if you couldn’t figure out that the resolution would involve a man-to-man pummeling between Six and Lloyd, I don’t know what to tell you. The inevitable final fight scene has the appearance of a MMA match, and I have to say that brawling brute Chris Evans isn’t as much fun as sneering barbed commentator Chris Evans.
Here’s the thing, though; for all the flaws I’ve enumerated above, The Gray Man has several stunning action set pieces—a lot of them. For every half-glimpsed, jerky-camera, poorly-lit ass-whupping, there’s a breathtaking race up and down the streets of a European city as bullets fly and cars careen into each other. The chase through Prague is especially exhilarating–Six blasts away at his latest attackers on a runaway streetcar, as Miranda swerves her car along side it, looping around more goons with an amount of artillery that surpassed anything on D-Day. And that, I suspect, is the point. The story and the characters don’t matter as much as the propulsion. The Russos set out to deliver the action, and that’s indeed what they did, maybe better than anyone else could have. With their fight and stunt coordinators Daniel Hernandez, Benjamin Hicquel, and Don Thai Theerathada (who now can claim one hell of an addition to their respective resumes), Joe and Anthony Russo serve their comic movie audience an action feast without any of the trimmings.
If you do enjoy The Gray Man, you’re in luck—Netflix has already announced a sequel and a spinoff series.