Another week, another big, expensive but soulless Netflix blockbuster. It’s no wonder they’re losing subscribers by the thousands with this kind of quantity over quality mentality. It doesn’t help that the streaming subscription is getting more and more expensive, it’ll cost us $15.49 per month in August. Undoubtedly Netflix is seeking a lucrative action franchise to bank on when it bought the rights to Mark Greaney’s novel of the same name. There are 12 books in the series that focus on Court Gentry, aka Sierra Six, so obviously lots of potential for franchise-building.
Ryan Gosling plays yet another strong silent type, the kind that’s been done so well with the Bourne franchise (the Matt Damon versions), Mission Impossible, and of course, James Bond. When we first see him, he’s being bailed out of prison to lead a deep-cover Sierra program of the CIA. His handler Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) is certain he’s the man for the job but the mission didn’t go according to plan and Six ends up uncovering a dark agency secret. Soon he ends up being on the run when a high-ranking CIA exec hires a notorious sociopathic former agent Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to make sure the secret stays hidden.
Movies about spies being hunted by their own employer is an extremely popular sub-genre. Pretty much every action franchise has done this clichéd premise in multiple variations because it can still be highly entertaining if done properly. In fact, the Russo Brothers and their frequent writing collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did one with a similar premise with Captain America: The Winter Soldier which remains my all-time favorite MCU. It’s the only Marvel movie that feels like a 70s espionage thriller where the hero ends up being hunted by the very people he worked for. So it would seen the Russos were the right filmmakers for the job of launching a great spy action series, alas what we get is more of a Mission Impossible imitation that feels more akin to Fast & Furious franchise, sans the ‘we are family’ motto.
I haven’t read Greany’s book but it’s got to have way more depth than what’s being adapted here. Gosling has mastered the stoic alpha male type he could practically do in his sleep, and I have to give him credit that he at least looks believable as a top-notch assassin. So the fault is in the writing that there’s no mystery to his character to be really invested in his journey as he flits from country to country, from Prague to Baku, Azerbaijan as if to ensure the filmmakers maxed out their $200mil budget. I laugh every time I see the Russo’s signature bold-lettered title cards that shows up every few minutes. It used to be so exciting to see movies shot on location, but there are hardly any memorable scenes from these exotic places that I could even point out in this review.
In filmmaking, having limitations often drive creativity and having virtually no limits on the budget could have the opposite effect. No matter how stunning the locations, cinematography, CGI, even the amount of A-list cast, ultimately it’s the story and characters that make the movie. Nothing beats the adrenaline rush of a suspenseful action thriller but watching this makes me recall other movies that gave me that feeling, as there’s none of that to be found here. Despite the well-choreographed fight scenes and decent CGI, the action scenes are annoyingly loud and just too bombastic (a tiresome word I wish I don’t need to keep using). The main shootout in Prague’s cobblestoned square as Czech police are mercilessly sprayed with bullets is absolutely risible as it looked like something out of a cartoonish superhero movie that has no bearing on reality. It doesn’t help that Gosling has this smirking face the entire time, it’s as if he himself knows how ludicrous this sequence is.
Much has been made about Chris Evans’ supposedly deliciously evil turn as a psychopathic villain but it’s so obvious he’s just having fun playing a baddie to take him seriously. Not for a second did I ever think of him as the least bit threatening and he’s so one-dimensional. Heck, I think Jessica Henwick could’ve been more menacing if the script allowed her to be more than just another CIA operative trapped in an impossible situation. Regé-Jean Page was so charismatic as the Duke in Bridgerton but he’s totally miscast here as a high-ranking CIA boss, not because of his lack of acting skills but he’s simply too young, not to mention too pretty, for such a role. Great talents such as Billy Bob Thornton, Wagner Moura and Alfre Woodard have some memorable moments but their short screen time barely made a dent overall.
The scene stealer is Dhanush, a Tamil cinema star who injects fun energy to the chase whenever he shows up. The fight scene between him and Ana De Armas is the most memorable of the entire movie, which makes me think De Armas is due her own action franchise as she has been such an MVP in this one and the last Bond movie!
It’s disappointing to see such a daft, unimaginative movie from the Russos who managed to redefine what it means to be a hero in the spectacular espionage thriller The Winter Soldier. Alas, this one doesn’t inject anything fresh nor new into the action genre, it merely exploits some of the best in a mindless fashion. It’s as if the filmmakers took a page from Michael Bay with all the mind-numbing explosions and excessive drone shots.
I just read earlier today that Netflix has green-lit the sequel and a possible spin-off. I have no desire to see more of this needless-but-inevitable franchise but hopefully, if they decide to spend another $200mil or even half of that, they’d focus more on the plot than simply giving us a hollow action travelogue and explosions.
What did YOU think of The Gray Man?