If you’ve ever plugged the word “Bourne” into the Netflix search bar, watched at least two minutes of Extraction, or Googled “Avengers: Endgame streaming,” The Gray Man owes you a special-thanks credit. Netflix’s charmless new action movie is a veritable tag cloud of keywords adapted into a lump of generic subscriber bait. Every one of its creative decisions, from the casting to the rat-a-tat snark of the dialogue to the stock on-the-run premise, might have been made by someone in the metrics department. The only way The Gray Man could feel more algorithmic is if it starred Ryan Reynolds, the current king of the content farm.
In fact, the title role is occupied by a different handsome, blonde Ryan in his early 40s. That would be Ryan Gosling, who’s usually more discerning about which projects to prune from the offer stack. Codenamed Sierra Six, perhaps in the hope that audiences might mistake this for a spinoff of Netflix’s 6 Underground, Court Gentry (Gosling) is a convict who agrees to become a weapon of the state in exchange for a commuted sentence. “You’d be part of an elite unit,” sweet talks his CIA recruiter (Billy Bob Thornton), banking on Suicide Squad having never made the cut for cell-block movie night.
The plot is bog-standard, just pure globetrotting boilerplate. It hinges on Gosling’s Six opting, for apparently the very first time, to ignore orders and not squeeze the trigger. Thanks to his hesitation, he ends up in possession of a computer chip containing some incriminating dirt on The Company. (It’s barely clarified what exactly “the asset,” as everyone calls it, actually reveals.) Suddenly in the crosshairs of his government superiors, including a wormy Harvard grad (Regé-Jean Page, from Netflix’s Bridgerton) and an uptight mission lead (Jessica Henwick, from Netflix’s Iron Fist), Six scrambles across continents, eventually securing the reluctant assistance of a fellow agent (Ana de Armas, star of the Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde, coming soon to Netflix).
The CIA villains farm out the task of eliminating this rogue operative to a former colleague, an amoral hired gun played by yet another strapping, slumming blonde movie star, Chris Evans. Though he easily could have slipped into the lead role, Evans instead slaps on an unflattering “trash ’stache” and summons some smirking smarm as the film’s sociopathic bad guy — a casting choice that might qualify as a smart subversion of his wholesome Captain America image if Bong Joon-ho and Rian Johnson hadn’t gotten there already.
The Gray Man reunites Evans with directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, aka the creative team behind some of the heftiest, most well-liked entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Russo brothers stage their set pieces with a chaotic jitter that seemed fleetingly fresh when applied to superhero skirmishes (their Captain America: The Winter Soldier remains one of the most exciting installments in that never-ending franchise) but has degraded into clumsiness. The palette is Endgame murky, as though someone threw a handful of ash on the lens; this may be the first movie to ever make Bangkok look drab. And the action sacrifices clarity for ersatz urgency, especially during an atrociously shot skydive into digital incoherence.
The script is no better. At one point, Six leaves his ruthless adversary unconscious — an unwise decision that speaks less to his shifting position on killing than the film’s need to keep Evans alive for an overblown, mano a mano climax. Markus and McFeely stuff everyone’s mouths with an exhausting volley of fashionably arch quips, privileging quantity (and speed) over quality. “To make an omelet, you have to kill a few people” is what passes for wit in this movie. Gosling, erstwhile driver of Drive, can work wonders with soulful silence but is less convincing firing off hackneyed wisecracks. Maybe it’s just that glib jokiness is easier to stomach when the one-liners are being delivered by comic-book titans, as opposed to special-ops wet workers and the indifferent suits determining their targets.
Collateral damage is almost a punchline in The Gray Man. It’s frankly depressing, the way Hollywood has processed the war-crimes skullduggery of the CIA into cynical cliché. One might be inclined to compare such a dim, grim view of the intelligence community with the military fetish of the Marvel machine if the Russos didn’t treat both as wallpaper. By this film’s bogus, shrugging moral calculus, the Evans character is a bad guy because he kills for the private sector without remorse, while Six is the hero because he has a few pangs of conscience after two decades of dropping bodies for his country. The script bends over backward to lend him a sympathetic backstory, including a family trauma it withholds until the final act and flashbacks to his bond with an obnoxiously precocious kid sidekick (Julia Butters).
Really, the best that can be said for The Gray Man is that it’s less risible in its lowly shoot-’em-up aims than the last Russo brothers movie, the laughably pretentious Apple TV+ movie Cherry. There, the Marvel hitmakers put a prestige memoir adaptation on steroids, inflating it to the size of a superhero blockbuster. In a sense, they’ve done something similar here, needlessly bloating what plays in basic outlines, like a DTV distraction. But maybe that was less a Russo call than a note from the almighty algorithm. Data shows that users like their action movies long and expensive, with the comfortingly familiar face of an Avenger to sometimes catch their eye while they make dinner or fold laundry.
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