Much dismay has been expressed on social media about Netflix raising their prices more and more every year. Why does the already successful streaming service need more money? With the release of Netflix’s THE GRAY MAN, the most expensive film they have ever produced at a whopping $200 million, the question about the motive behind the rising subscription price has been answered. The film boasts an all-star cast — Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans and Ana De Armas among others — and contains constant larger-than-life action scenes that make the Bourne films seem like independent filmmaking. However, given the film is directed by the Russo Brothers, the masterminds behind Marvel tentpoles like Avengers: Endgame and Captain America: Civil War, the movie still manages to be quite a bit of fun and exhibits a flair for the dramatic that suits the tone and budget.
The Jason Bourne comparisons are plentiful with the plot of THE GRAY MAN, since both are globe-trotting spy thrillers about a hired mercenary who must retaliate against the very organization that hired him in order to gain his freedom and protect the ones he cares about. In this version of the story, Gosling plays Six, a prisoner with a prolonged sentence, who is hired by the CIA to carry out the bidding of the American government. Six is given no information about the people he kills other than that he must comply for the good of American safety and welfare. However, when one of the targets he is assigned to take out claims to be a prisoner hired to the exact same program as him, Six starts to doubt the intentions of the CIA and begins to realize that he may be the next target. As a result, Six must uncover the secrets behind the CIA’s operations and stay alive while a psychopathic assassin (Evans) hunts him down.
The truly sad thing about THE GRAY MAN being a $200 million dollar movie is that much of the film is carried by Gosling’s subdued charisma, something that cannot be bought with a hefty special effects budget. If the Russo Brothers had spent their time and money crafting a great script with Gosling at the head instead of trying to make a film like their over-the-top Avengers films, then THE GRAY MAN could have cost way less and maybe even have been a better film overall. As soon as the film begins, the narrative jumps straight into costly action setpieces, many of which contain a ridiculous amount of CGI for a gritty spy thriller. The movie is at its most naturally fun and enjoyable stage when the Russos focus on practical car chases — an exhilarating train chase midway through the film is quite impressive — instead of CGI craziness such as a random plane crash scene early on that felt quite forced.
When the movie begins, it gives the impression of being another flat spy thriller with a forgettable protagonist and a boring villain. Fortunately, Gosling’s emotional arc arrives with the characters of Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) — the man who hired him to be “The Gray Man” — and his niece, Claire (Julia Butters). The extent to which he finds a family he never had with Fitzroy and Claire is truly touching and provides an emotional core that keeps the movie from slipping into “boring” territory. Plus, Gosling plays this arc with his typical finesse, causing an avenue for tension in a movie that mostly contains average spy movie tropes. The disappointing aspect of THE GRAY MAN is Evans’ villain, who never becomes interesting or menacing enough to add anything to the story. Evans plays a decent psychopath, but the writing for his character never makes us understand his motivations or fear his methods. The character is a generic big-budget villain that doesn’t give Chris Evans anything to do.
Ana de Armas also appears in the film, and has even less to do than Evans. She is reduced to a sidekick character that occasionally swoops in to save Gosling and then disappears for the next 20 minutes. It is quite sad that the Russo Brothers reduce such prolific actors to these forgettable roles, especially in a big-budget film that should give these actors more exposure. Proven actors such as Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page and Alfre Woodard are also given one-dimensional roles that never put their talent on display. For a movie that spends so much on special effects, one wonders what the difference in quality would be if an equal amount was spent to write interesting characters and create a unique experience. This may get a ton of streams on Netflix, but outside of that nobody will remember the details of this film in a year.
THE GRAY MAN is an entertaining watch because of the larger-than-life action sequences scattered throughout and for watching Gosling be attractive for two hours, but beyond that there is not much substance here. The Russo Brothers proved themselves to be talented directors with their MCU work, but so far they have yet to follow up that work with anything near as impressive. They keep applying the logic of an Avengers movie to an entirely different type of film, and so far their formula seems like it is in dire need of a reinvention. With a mega-talented cast like this and a large budget, this movie should have been an easy home run, yet the content we get is a Bourne-derivative spy movie that doesn’t leave a mark of its own.