Did you know that there’s a $200 million movie from the second- and third-highest-grossing directors of all time starring the sixth-highest-grossing actor of all time in hundreds of theaters right now, as you read this? Or that this movie with huge stars, helmed by renowned directors wielding a giant budget, will be on your TV in seven scant days, as it drops on Netflix next week?
If you’re reading this review you might be, since you’re the sort of person who reads film critics and God bless you for that. But I’d wager, on average, that responses are more likely to be in the negative. All of which is to say that The Gray Man is as interesting to me as a cultural and economic artifact as it is a movie.
As a movie, it’s perfectly acceptable. Ryan Gosling stars as Six, a CIA operative from a shuttered program that recruited inmates to do the government’s dirty work for it. He goes rogue after being sent to kill Four (Callan Mulvey), who is selling some of the proof of that dirty work to … well, someone, hard to say. Doesn’t matter that much; this is one of those movies where the real villain is the CIA, so the less thought given to the guys the CIA is in charge of neutralizing, the better.
The CIA’s Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) and Brewer (Jessica Henwick) task the sociopathic Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to track down Six, who is trying to figure out why the CIA wants him dead with the aid of his old boss Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) and field agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), who simply wants to clear her name. Chaos ensues, you get the idea.
The Gray Man is fairly generic as far as generic thriller-action movies go. The stoic warrior with a steely edge to him perfected by Gosling as far back as Drive works perfectly well here; Evans is genuinely funny as the emptily psychotic Lloyd, his chipper brutality lining up perfectly with his neatly trimmed mustache, bristle-top haircut, and two-sizes-too-small Polo tennis shirts stretched out across his Captain America trunk. It’s always nice to see Thornton hamming it up. There’s a wonderful set piece based in Prague that made me guffaw at one point for how ridiculous it is.
It’s a slightly strange movie, in that you get the sense that there are vestigial subplots all over the place; we see bits and pieces of tail-like remnants, but only hints of the long-lost appendages. I didn’t realize until looking at IMDB, for instance, that consummate character actor Shea Whigham plays Six’s abusive father, who is the reason for Six’s incarceration and whose wickedness inspired Six to want to help people. But then, in a movie like this, motivations only matter so much when you have RPGs to fire on cobblestone Czech streets.
Joe and Anthony Russo’s use of drone cameras is genuinely fascinating. Combined with Michael Bay’s Ambulance, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a new addition to the language of cinema, sort of like an aerial Steadicam that can both deliver large parcels of visual information that help viewers grasp the lay of the land while also keeping the audience intimately in check with each of the actors. One imagines it’s easier to set up/reset drone work than the more typical tracking shots or dolly shots or big, sweeping crane shots in addition to looking more dynamic, which is a big win for filmmakers.
That said, I remain most interested in the picture as a business proposition. Netflix is only going to derive a marginal amount of revenue from it by putting it in theaters without advertising its presence there and the picture that will undoubtedly nab eyeballs on the streaming service for a month or so before fading into the content morass. In other words, The Gray Man is a $200 million movie of the week: fun enough in the moment, though not particularly memorable. Given that Netflix is losing subscribers and investor confidence, it’s not clear how the struggling streamer will be meaningfully helped by The Gray Man.