Oh, Netflix.

As with so many online services, Netflix boomed in a big way when the pandemic hit, and they foolishly thought business would only continue to get better from there. But then people started leaving their homes and Netflix’s bad press caught up with them, right when Netflix got big enough that all the major media conglomerates started going after them as a legitimate threat. So now Netflix is losing money and subscribers hand over fist.

The solution: Crack down on password sharing. Also, find a huge multimedia culture-dominating tentpole franchise. They need an MCU or a Star Wars, or a Wizarding World at the very least. And right now, the best they’ve got is “Stranger Things” — a TV show with an aging cast coming up on its final season. I suppose Red Notice could be a candidate, but does anyone still remember that movie or care if it gets that sequel we were promised? There’s the upcoming “The Sandman” adaptation, of course, but I’m sure Netflix would prefer an IP they didn’t have to share with one of the other conglomerates.

(Side note: You know how Netflix put all the hard work and money into making and distributing those Marvel TV shows, then Disney turned around and put those same shows on Disney+ for their own exclusive profit just as soon as the rights expired? WB is going to pull the exact same shit with “The Sandman”, just wait.)

So here’s The Gray Man, a film with a reported $200 million budget, rivaling Red Notice (another international action caper) for the title of Netflix’s most expensive film venture ever. Appropriately, the film stars Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, and other such big names under the direction of the freaking Russo Brothers, hot off directing the highest-grossing movie of all time. I might add that pretty much immediately after the film’s release, Netflix greenlit a sequel and at least one spinoff with the goal of a cinematic megafranchise.

So what exactly is this molehill that Netflix is trying to make a mountain of? Well, let’s take a look.

Our premise begins in the early ’00s with the Sierra Program, in which the CIA had the bright idea of recruiting black ops hit men directly out of prison. They (by which I mean Fitzroy, Thornton’s character) would look for any pliable yet disposable convicts who got locked up long-term for violent crimes and don’t have any family to miss them. Fitzroy would then offer to commute their sentences in exchange for a brief lifetime of servitude killing bad guys to make the world a safer place.

For obvious reasons, the project didn’t work out as expected. Only a half-dozen recruits were ever brought into the program, and pretty much all of them either died or flamed out in short order. The only one still active is Sierra Six, played by Gosling.

Flash forward to the present day, when Six is a highly accomplished CIA operative and Fitzroy has long since retired. The new guy in charge is Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page), a flagrantly immoral asshole who’s sent Six to dispose of some generic bad guy (code-named “Diner Car”, played by Callan Mulvey) before the sale of some highly sensitive data.

Only — surprise, surprise! — our generic bad guy turns out to be Sierra Four. And the “sensitive intel” is actually a chip with evidence that Carmichael is in fact a flagrantly corrupt shithead. Shocker, I know. This prompts Six to drop off the radar, and Carmichael is of course motivated to find Six and retrieve the chip.

Enter Lloyd Hansen (Evans), a mental case so impossibly sadistic that the CIA kicked him out after five months. Thus Lloyd went into work as a private contractor, handling whatever illegal torture and murder nobody else wants to get their hands dirty with. And because he’s such good buddies with Carmichael, Lloyd agrees to chase after Six.

While all of this is going on, Six goes to Fitzroy for help. Trouble is, Lloyd has already taken the step of kidnapping Fitzroy’s niece (Claire, played by Julia Butters) — a teenage girl with a congenital heart condition — to use as a hostage against both Fitzroy and Six.

Speaking of our female leads, we’ve also got Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), another CIA field operative who only just met Six on his last mission and thus finds herself unwittingly tangled up in all of this. Rounding out the cast is Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick), the unfortunate middle manager caught in between Denny and Lloyd.

Let’s take stock of what we’ve got here, shall we?

  • Stupid plan to kill one’s own assassin to cover up another crime spirals out of control with increasing collateral damage until it backfires horribly. (John Wick: Chapter II, Kate, American Ultra, the entire Bourne franchise, etc.)
  • Villain puts a bounty on our hero’s head, so he’s beset by adversaries at all times and from all angles. (John Wick: Chapter III, The Raid, etc.)
  • An international underworld of assassins and mercenaries with their own independent culture. (The entire John Wick franchise, Hotel Artemis, etc.)
  • Villain kidnaps a young female hostage, prompting a plot for our hero to find and retrieve her. (The Taken franchise, Live Free or Die Hard, etc.)
  • Young girl as a device for our cold-blooded killer protagonist to develop and show a more human side. (Leon the Professional, Kate, Gunpowder Milkshake, etc.)

To be entirely clear, it bears remembering that the “globe-hopping spy action/adventure thriller” genre isn’t as vibrant as it used to be, now that Bourne has run his course and Bond is out of commission for the foreseeable future. And yes, while John Wick is still going strong, Fast&Furious and Mission: Impossible are both coming up on their penultimate films. There’s going to be a lot more room in this lane in the near future, so it makes sense for a franchise-hungry studio like Netflix to try and lay the groundwork for a series to pick up the slack.

And yes, I will readily admit that pulling from established tropes is not necessarily a bad thing, certainly not within a genre work like this one. The trouble is, pulling shamelessly from so many other films is only acceptable when A) the filmmakers are crafting a self-aware tribute/parody of the genre, and/or B) when the filmmakers mix all these different tropes into something new and capable of standing on its own. This film does neither. If anything, it feels like the filmmakers are throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. It makes for a plot that’s clumsy and unfocused, when an action film with such one-dimensional characters demands a far more streamlined plot.

Which brings us to our lead characters and the performances. Look, Ryan Gosling can smolder all day long. You want an actor to play the brooding badass man of mystery, he’s your guy. Trouble is, that only really works with a one-off film appearance. (see also: Drive). It’s not enough to sustain a whole potential series of films, never mind a megafranchise. Say what you will about James Bond (and I’ve said a lot), but that character’s got more than enough personality and catchphrases and charisma to power a long-running series of films right into mainstream dominance. And by Six’s own admission (No, literally, he explicitly name-checks 007 in the film.), he’s not James Bond by a long shot.

Chris Evans has the opposite problem. Evans is reaching deep into his “Lucas Lee” bag with this one, and I’m here for it. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Lucas Lee had lived and kept making movies up to Evans’ current age, this is exactly the character Lee would’ve played and exactly as Lee would’ve played it. But while Evans is putting all of his effort into chewing the scenery and trying his damnedest to make the proceedings fun, it’s nowhere near enough to distract from how hopelessly one-dimensional his character is.

This is a huge recurring problem with both of our conflicting spies: Their motivations. As far as we can tell, Six is only in this business because a prison cell is a slightly less preferable alternative, and Lloyd is only doing all of this because he’s a homicidal psychopath. Those motivations are nowhere near strong enough to tell us anything about these characters, much less to give us a plausible or sympathetic reason for the outrageously destructive actions they take as the plot unfolds.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the action scenes. They’re not great. The first few are especially bad, with incompetent camerawork, slipshod editing, obnoxious lighting, and impenetrable smoke to make those initial fight scenes borderline unwatchable. It certainly doesn’t help that the film has an inconsistent attitude toward the character’s vulnerability — a few punches and scratches seem to visibly hurt, but he can shrug off goddamn stab wounds and fucking bullet holes without even flinching! Seriously, Six takes multiple stab wounds to the freaking chest during the big climactic scene and it doesn’t even slow him down — what the hell?!

Easily the greatest action scene in the whole movie is that breathless action set piece halfway through the movie, in which Six, an army of hostile mercenaries, and local law enforcement all fight each other in a sprawling chase sequence that demolishes half of freaking Prague. And it all takes place in broad daylight, so we can actually see what’s happening! The only unfortunate downside — as Lloyd himself points out numerous times — is that it really should not be this difficult for several dozen armed mercenaries to shoot a target who is literally handcuffed to a concrete park bench. That’s taking the concept of “plot armor” to a whole ‘nother level right there.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the one action scene in which two characters are using the same cord to garrote each other, so they’re basically playing a life-or-death game of tug-of-war with their necks. That was clever, I appreciate that.

The big problem here is that Team John Wick have raised the bar for mainstream action cinema in a big way. If you’re going to make an action flick to be taken seriously as a serious mainstream tentpole franchise, the fight scenes must be at least as good as anything that Kolstad, Stahelski, and/or Leitch have brought to the screen. You’d think the directors who brought us freaking Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame would be up to the task, but it’s not even close. Then again, it certainly doesn’t help that the camerawork for the fight scenes is so dull and counterproductive, while the Russo Brothers use high-speed drone camera swoops for goddamn establishing shots. Somebody explain that logic to me, please.

With all that being said, I must give due praise with regards to the female leads. Yes, it sucks that Ana de Armas and Jessica Henwick weren’t given more to do, as they’ve both long proven themselves worthy of their own action franchise. (I particularly regret that de Armas and Evans never get to fight each other — I would’ve appreciated that post-Knives Out rematch.) Even so, I appreciate that they both play competent characters with their own arcs independent of the male characters, capable of holding their own against the male leads. Hell, even the teenage girl with a bum heart does an admirable job of aiding in her own rescue.

The Gray Man reeks of desperation. This is yet another example of a movie from people with no idea what they wanted to make except money. The Netflix execs spent $200 million hiring the hottest stars and pulling tropes from other action films, thinking that would be enough to get them a wildly successful franchise. But that’s simply not enough when the film isn’t any fun to sit through, none of the characters are developed beyond one dimension, and there’s nothing about this world that’s immersive or new or capable of standing on its own.

If this was some mid-budget disposable action flick like The Protege, it would’ve been fine. But as a $200 million dollar tentpole with such a massive pedigree, destined to be the Next Big Thing that powers the studio for the next few decades, fuck outta here.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: The Gray Man

  1. Wow. It sounds like a lot of people were involved with this movie who’ve all done better movies than this one. Just what went wrong with this one? A lack of coordination? Looks like they just weren’t giving this one their A game. And that’s a pity.

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