With Bourne done and another Bond years away, the field is open for a new spy franchise to deliver impossible missions filled with thrills and intrigue. The Gray Man isn’t that film, sadly, as while the action is solid – and stars Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans do their best with the material – the whole enterprise feels derivative, like we’ve seen it all before.
Based on a book by Mark Greaney, Netflix‘s The Gray Man has solid pedigree. Marvel stalwarts Anthony Russo and Joe Russo – of Infinity War and Engdame fame – direct. From a script the brothers spent the best part of a decade developing, and which Joe wrote with their Avengers collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
But where those films frequently zigged when you were expecting them to zag, there’s very little in the way of surprizes in The Gray Man. And there are times when you can see every story beat coming long before it arrives.
So while there’s fun to be had watching the pulsating action, and enjoying the stunning locales, the stuff in between is at best disappointing, and at worst, dishwater dull.
Who is The Gray Man?
Ryan Gosling plays the title character; real name Court Gentry, code-name 06. We meet Six – as he’s knowns throughout the movie – in a Florida penitentiary, where he’s serving a 28-year stretch. Agency man Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) asks him to leave prison, to kill for the CIA.
It’s an offer Six can’t refuse, so he enters the Sierra Programme, where hardened criminals have their sentences commuted and records expunged in exchange for killing on behalf of Uncle Sam.
The name comes from the fact that they exist in the gray areas, becoming anonymous assassins whose flexible morality means they are willing to do the jobs others won’t. Kind of like a peacetime Dirty Dozen.
Six is the best of these so-called ghosts, but everything changes during a job in Bangkok. Center Chief Denny Carmichael (an underused Rege-Jean Page) orders a hit on someone selling secrets. And Six is busy carrying out the hit until a kid enters his line of fire.
He ultimately takes the guy down, via a spectacular sequence that plays out in the midst of a firework display. But being a killer with a conscience, Six does it on his own terms. In the process hearing secrets he isn’t supposed to hear, and receiving a USB containing information he isn’t supposed to have.
These twin discoveries send Six on a globe-trotting adventure as he endeavours to uncover the truth about what’s hidden on that digital maguffin, while at the same time trying to elude the killers who are now hunting him down.
Meet Captain Un-America
Captain America himself – Chris Evans – plays one of the assassins in question, a sociopath named Lloyd Hansen who works in the private sector. He’s a quirky villain; the type who quotes philosophers and waxes lyrical about suffering.
The film is very excited about his presence, with characters frequently discussing his lack of ethics and impulse control, and interest in unauthorized torture. Someone even rather tastelessly claims that Lloyd has a “higher kill count than Mossad.”
Evans is clearly having fun playing bad, most notably during an homage to The Marathon Man where he repeatedly demands “What’s in Prague?” He also manages to resist the urge to twirl the rather fetching moustache that Lloyd sports throughout proceedings.
But Hansen becomes an increasingly tiresome presence in the movie. Especially when he’s spouting live commentary over the action, and delivering dumb lines like “make him dead” and “wanna make an omelette, you gotta kill some people.”
Spy vs Spy
That action sends both hero and villain to some amazing European locations, with henchmen and women laying waste to the likes of Berlin, Vienna and the aforementioned Prague. A particularly spectacular set-piece plays out in the latter, with Six handcuffed to a bench, and therefore trapped and vulnerable as “every Grade A wet team” comes after him.
Another stand-out sequence happens on a plane, where the close-quarters combat is reminiscent of the Russos’ sterling work in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
But while the bulk of Gray Man action is awesome, the drama that connects those scenes is not, particularly a weird sub-plot that plays out in flashback.
The shadow of James Bond
Six is something of a blank slate for much of the movie, in-keeping with his job. So the film decides to give him personality by flashing back to a time when he briefly looked after a sick kid.
This fits with the story in the present, but feels both manipulative, and derivative, as it mirrors the central relationship between Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning in (the far superior) Man on Fire. But where that film spends an hour building said connection to add depth and build sympathy, here it happens in mere minutes, and so never fully rings true.
Indeed, we’ve seen so much of The Gray Man elsewhere, with 007 casting a particularly long shadow over 06’s story. The spy vs spy stuff is straight out of multiple Bond movies. Henry Jackman’s score is also reminiscent. While No Time to Die deployed Ana De Armas as a secret agent who was much more engaging than the one she plays here.
The Verdict – is The Gray Man good?
The major difference, however, is that Bond films frequently feature multiple twists and turns, whereas The Gray Man feels like it’s painting by numbers. The story is so straightforward, and the plot so linnear, that it fails to ever fully engage.
Then when one character does do something we aren’t expecting – finally – their motivation is so ridiculous that you wish that they too had stayed in their uninspired lane.
So while the action is worthy of Hollywood’s best – and looks like it cost a fortune – the plot is nowhere near where it needs to be, and plays more like some cheap and cheerful spy show that you’d see on TV.
All of which makes for a disappointing viewing experience, made all-the-more frustrating by the talent involved. This is clearly a potential franchise starter for Gosling and co., with storylines set-up to pay-off in future films. But the fact that everything here has been done before and done better means this is very probably the last we’ll see of The Gray Man.
The Gray Man hits cinema screens on July 15, then Netflix a week later, on July 22.