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Netflix’s ‘The Gray Man’ a fun, albeit flawed action outing from the Russos

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Say what you will about Joe and Anthony Russo, but they understand what it means for a movie to be big. There are few filmmakers currently working who understand the particulars of blockbusters as well as they do. The Russos seem to have an inherent grasp of what makes large-scale films work. So it’s no surprise that the powers that be at Netflix would tap the Russos to helm their biggest budget film to date.

That film is “The Gray Man,” an action blockbuster currently streaming on the service. The Russos direct from a script by Joe Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, adapted from the 2009 Mark Greaney novel of the same name. It has all the components of a massive movie – huge budget, A-list stars, elaborate set pieces and exotic locales, the whole shebang – so of course, why not enlist guys who fundamentally get it to steer the ship?

It’s an espionage action-thriller, a story about one man’s attempt to survive when the government agency for which he has spent over a decade working decides that he has become a liability. This is a big, loud globetrotter of an adventure, and while it perhaps doesn’t work as fully as it might have, it remains an exciting and engaging work of popcorn entertainment.

We first meet Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling) in a prison visiting room, where he is engaged in conversation by a man named Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). A senior CIA official, Fitzroy is recruiting the man to become a part of a secret group of government assassins known as Sierra. Gentry becomes Six, a type of operative known colloquially as a “gray man” – someone who operates outside the standard purview on the fringes of what is considered legal and/or acceptable.

Flash forward nearly two decades. Six is in Bangkok, assigned to assassinate a target who is suspected of offering damaging national security secrets to the highest bidder, working alongside CIA agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas). The mission goes sideways due to Six’s unwillingness to accept certain collateral damages; the messiness of the situation infuriates the man in charge, ambitious lead agent Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page).

It's all complicated when Six comes into possession of information that causes him to question his current circumstances. With little recourse, Six goes rogue, hoping to get to the bottom of what is actually happening. This leads to Carmichael enlisting the aid of Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a bright-eyed sociopath of an independent contractor, to take care of the situation … by whatever means necessary.

As you might imagine, said means get pretty gnarly. Six crisscrosses the globe, trying to stay one step ahead of Lloyd and the vast resources at his disposal. We get firefights and car chases and hand-to-hand combat. There are kidnappings and advanced interrogations and all manner of nastiness thrown his way. Meanwhile, Six is left with a scant few people that he can trust; like it or not, it is him against the world, all in service of bringing brutal truths to light.

“The Gray Man” is pure action spectacle. This is a movie that puts the pedal to the floor almost immediately and then basically refuses to let off the gas for the next two hours. It is flashy and explosive – figuratively and literally – offering one hell of a thrill ride. And if the pieces of the plot don’t necessarily hold together on close examination, well … it’s still a phenomenal show.

Again, the Russos know big. And “The Gray Man” is BIG. This is a movie that is absolutely packed with set pieces – there are a half-dozen that would likely be the centerpiece of another film. However, it should be noted that bigger does not always correlate to better. The scale is apparent, but a little nuance would have gone a long way – you can have the best action in the world and it won’t matter if the viewer can’t always track what’s happening. Things get decidedly choppy in spots. There are also some moments where things get weighed down by effects work that doesn’t quite meet expectations.

Meanwhile, the story never quite coheres. The obvious affinity for the spectacle of the thing definitely gets in the way of storytelling at times; it’s not that you don’t know what’s happening so much as you’re not always clear on why. There are some narrative holes that never really get closed, leading to a plot that is a touch more opaque than you’d like.

All that being said, the cast and the work they do goes a good way toward compensating for the film’s issues. Gosling is solid as Six, managing to make the character engaging while also remaining something of a cipher. He finds flashes of interiority, but is able to make the role’s stoicism play as well. It’s a delicate balance and the scales occasionally tip too far one way or the other, but as action star turns go, it’s a good one. Evans, on the other hand, is absolutely going for it. Lloyd is an utter psycho, a grinning lunatic who steadfastly believes that his every choice is the correct one. He’s a mustachioed, polo-shirted nutcase who oozes narcissism and unsettling, malevolent charm. This is first-rate action baddie work from him.

I’m a fan of Ana de Armas, who has shown a facility for action in the past; that facility is present here as well. She is comfortable and confident in roles like this; she doesn’t steal the show like she did in “No Time to Die,” but she’s definitely excellent. Billy Bob Thornton is a pro’s pro and performs as such. Rege-Jean Page’s naked bureaucratic ambition is nicely rendered. Alfre Woodard, Jessica Henwick and Claire Butters all do strong work as well. Top to bottom, an excellent ensemble. Still, while the performances make up for a lot of lost ground, they can’t do all the heavy lifting.

Personally, I enjoyed “The Gray Man,” though it does feel more like a collection of disparate pieces than a single coherent film. The parts that work really work, even as the parts that don’t fall flat. However, if you’re a fan of large-scale blockbuster cinema, you’ll derive sufficient satisfaction from the good bits to make it worth a watch, though again - size isn't everything.

Fittingly, this is a movie that is somewhere between good and bad, existing in – dare I say it – a bit of a gray area.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 25 July 2022 10:14

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