THE GRAY MAN– 4 STARS
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo knew exactly what they were doing to bend rules, cliches, and, more symbolically, colors when it comes to The Gray Man. The title, matching the first of Mark Greaney’s successful CIA clandestine adventure novels, already suggests characters operating in the foggy, nondescript basin between the old western movie rhetoric of clearly-labeled good guys and bad guys. They knew there was far more fun and wiggle room to be had playing the dicey middle with their own disguises.
LESSON #1: GRAY HIDES UNPREDICTABILITY– Sure enough, Ryan Gosling’s “white hat” hero is mostly cloaked in dark colors to blend in off the grid and mask his moral center. Rather than wearing an outward look that trumpets his courage for all to see, he’s the silent stalker. By the same token, the flamboyant “black hat” villain played by Chris Evans never lurks in the shadows. Sauntering with all the swinging-dick swagger possible in his loud white pants, he’ll do any and every loud and explosive thing possible to get his target.
Both men are stupendously deadly in their own ways. Seen and unseen pushers and handlers with unreliable agendas have tied hands, and forced ones too, for the repercussions to come. Pit these two men and their motives against each other, and the unpredictability ignites itself in The Gray Man. Wall to wall, the Russos have unleashed what may stand as the best pure action movie of 2022.
Gosling’s character is codenamed Sierra Six. He was recruited out of prison by Donald Fitzroy (a very game Billy Bob Thornton) in 2003 to become a CIA dark ops asset and has amassed an impeccable reputation of success for 18 years. When the outlined strategy of his latest mission, a thrilling New Year’s Eve assassination sequence set in Bangkok, goes awry, Six learns that the primary target was one of his one program peers. Sierra Four (Callan Mulvey of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) gives Six information detailing rampant double-dealing at the highest level and the nefarious plan to eliminate all remaining Sierra personnel.
The main puppeteer of this scheme is CIA program director Denny Carmichael, the very testy and voraciously political prick played by Bridgerton heartthrob Regé-Jean Page. The op going sideways puts Six on the run from his previous employer. Carmichael hangs the scapegoat duties on his subordinate Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick of The Matrix Resurrections) and goes outside the lines to hire the deranged freelance assassin Lloyd Hansen (Evans) to clean up one mess and make many more.
Unprotected with a lucrative price on his head, Six has no one safe to turn to except his old mentors, Fitzroy and Alfre Woodard’s retired station chief Margaret Cahill, and CIA agent Dani Maranda (Gosling’s Blade Runner 2049 co-star Ana de Armas) who discerns Carmichael’s suspicious plot on her own after Bangkok. Carmichael and Hansen know those limitations and loyalties, so they squeeze Fitzroy to give up Six out by kidnapping Donald’s teenage niece Claire (Julia Butters of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood). Because Six has invested personal history with Donald and Claire, given background light through an entertaining Tokyo flashback interlude, the bosses have poked the wrong bear, leading to an international manhunt and vendetta-fueled rescue mission destined to collide.
In very ostentatious 1990s-esque fashion, the biggest draws for The Gray Man are its handsome stars and the over-the-top action. If you want to apply the Bellerophon/Chimera “a hero is only as good as his villain” rationale and attach the additional criteria of hotness, then, whew, get a ventilator ready and switch those hat colors again. If Ryan Gosling is merely a good guy snack, and a hearty one at that, then Regé-Jean Page and Chris Evans are even more delicious in evil form.
Imbuing a character with muscular toughness, Gosling has anchored himself to a showy role he can own for as long as he wants. Likewise, Evans gets to work with his Captain America buddies to continue his post-Knives Out career route to smear that matinee idol image up a bit where he can. Both leads, as well as Page filling the sniveling suit part you love to hate and Ana de Armas playing a legitimate Strong Female Character with zero percent useless love interest baggage, are launched to peak awesome stature, thanks to aerobic heights provided by fight choreographer Felix Betancourt (Day Shift), fight coordinator Daniel Hernandez (The Old Guard), and stunt coordinator Rockey Dickey (Sweet Girl).
LESSON #2: “I GET IT. YOU’RE GLIB”— The behavior in The Gray Man that strikes hard with its own “wow” moments alongside the fists and bullets is all the tough talk being slung around from the punchy script written by Joe Russo and his dependable Avengers sequel team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Beginning with this quoted volley from Billy Bob Thornton to Gosling, the competitive repartee starts early and keeps going throughout. Ryan’s man-of-action mixes just enough sarcasm to tickle a scene with dry humor. Across from him, you can tell Evans and Page were chomping at the bit to play villains and have all the sadistic verbal and physical fun. The banter and puns are sharpened enough to stay above cringy Schwarzenneger-style one-liner clunkers and doofus-level taunts of a WWE promo. Because of the black hat/white hat upheaval, you truly don’t know what someone is going to say or do next.
The bending of norms for the Russos continues with the vast production scope of The Gray Man. Joe and Anthony flexed their ultra-successful Marvel Cinematic Universe clout to secure the largest budget Netflix has ever dropped for a movie to date (which is saying something), and, holy potatoes, did they put every dollar of it into a substantial extravaganza of mayhem. The Gray Man, with its high-wire intrigue and globe-hopping energy, is a far better use of their kinetic, big spectacle chops than the lesser blue collar crime weight of Cherry last year where their bag of tricks bloated the film.
Save for a hectic scene or two (particularly an incoherent parachute moment in the first act on par with the fakeness of Uncharted), the visual effects supervised by MCU vet Swen Gillberg (especially considering the recent backlash smearing Marvel as an employer) and camera setups from longtime Justin Lim collaborator Stephen F. Windon are clearer than most current enhanced flicks. More often than not, Gillberg’s pixels and Windon’s drones are merely there to punch up the background mattes or surround the sweaty, brawling stars who are never special effects themselves. Adding a very nice boost of throwback sensibility is Henry Jackman’s musical score that kicks up some Lalo Schiffrin percussion flavor for extra edge and peppiness.
All of that vast glitz was employed to make The Gray Man look lavish enough to compete with the Jason Bourne films and the current Mission: Impossible and Fast and Furious juggernauts with their broad PG-13 appeal. With Bourne already done and the other two popular long-running action franchises nearing their advertised conclusions after decades of dominance, the blockbuster movie landscape is re-opening for new contenders. Interestingly, we may have an espionage arms race on our hands between two streaming giants.
Last year, Amazon Studios nabbed Michael B. Jordan for Without Remorse to spark a possible production line of Rainbow Six dream projects from the best-selling works of Tom Clancy. Placing their own $200 million bet, Netflix lightened their deep pockets and secured their own top players and prime name brand intellectual property for The Gray Man. By endearing the good graces of the proven Russos and A-list Gosling, leveraging Greaney’s more-modern series as a Clancy protege has created a very brash, glossy, and able replacement candidate for when Ethan Hunt hangs up his running shoes and Dominic Torretto parks his car.
Netflix has already done one better than Amazon by making The Gray Man available theatrically, albeit for only one week at select theaters starting July 15th before streaming on July 22nd. That’s not enough and for what should be better than “just another Thursday night.” This massive movie is entirely more fit for the theatrical big screen than only the mounted 4K panels at home. This wild ride deserves more than one week, not only to perform and make its huge budget back, but to also impress and win the thirsty action-and-abs movie fans looking for that next fixation.