DIRECTORS: Anthony and Joe Russo

CAST: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Wagner Moura, Julia Butters, Dhanush, Alfre Woodard, Billy Bob Thornton, Callan Mulvey, Eme Ikwuakor, Scott Haze, Michael Gandolfini, Sam Lerner, Robert Kazinsky, DeObia Oparei

RUNNING TIME: 122 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12A

BASICALLY…: A skilled CIA operative (Gosling) is hunted across the world by a psychotic former colleague (Evans)…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Having spent the last few years desperately trying to get into the blockbuster game, Netflix has more often than not come up short. It’s not as though the movies are downright detestable, but they’re not particularly great, either; despite the hundreds of millions put into their productions, and the participation of big Hollywood A-listers both in front of and behind the camera, the likes of Red Notice, The Old Guard, 6 Underground and Bright have all settled into that dangerous realm of mediocrity that ensures a limited longevity among audiences. In other words, hardly worthy of competing against even the most standard of theatrical blockbusters.

Sadly for the streamer, it looks like that particular realm has a new resident, and even by the standards of Netflix’s other underwhelming blockbusters this one is especially disappointing. The Gray Man, a $200 million-budgeted action thriller based on a series of books by Mark Greaney, is a movie where you can definitely see the money on-screen (to a point), and yet very little of that budget apparently went towards improving a script that is painfully generic, occasionally incomprehensible, and not the slightest bit interesting.

The film follows a skilled CIA operative known as Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling), whose job is to take out certain people that the government doesn’t want to sent entire hit squads after. His latest target is a former operative from Six’s program, who gives him a pendant with evidence that Six’s new handlers (Regé-Jean Page and Jessica Henwick) are pretty crooked, which inevitably sends Six on the run. The CIA then decides – albeit somewhat reluctantly – to recruit psychopathic former agent Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to lead the worldwide hunt for Six, who is trying to get to the bottom of the conspiracy with the help of fellow agent Dani (Ana de Armas) while avoiding not just Lloyd’s goons but also a number of international assassins who have been hired to take him down.

It’s futile to say that you’ve seen all of this before in many other movies that are much better than this, because at this point you’re probably already envisioning those better movies in your head instead of wanting to know more about The Gray Man. That’s what this movie does: by delivering a number of very paint-by-numbers action sequences amidst a “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt” narrative where every major twist is heavily telegraphed, and in ways that aren’t particularly interesting to watch, the viewer is practically forced to envision other movies like this which actually felt ambitious with its plot, characters, action, and overall ideas. Even for the budget that it has, this movie doesn’t feel particularly ambitious, with its familiar plot that one can easily poke holes through like Swiss cheese (because, again, you’ve seen it so many times that you can now point out whenever something doesn’t add up), characters who you’re not invested enough in to care that much about, and action which is either marred by aggressively shaky camerawork or hilariously undermined by some pretty terrible CGI that practically turns everything into a cartoon. The lack of investment in these fundamental areas is a major reason why you keep thinking about other movies while watching it, since they do all of those things in much better and more memorable ways that you wonder what the point of this movie even is if it can’t keep up with, or even surpass, what came before.

It’s also an odd movie to try and dissect from a narrative standpoint, because directors Anthony and Joe Russo (the latter also sharing a writing credit with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) seem to have approached this movie similar to how they did with their previous Marvel entries, by just diving right in to the action with the assumption that audiences already know this world and these characters. That approach works for Marvel, because it has been meticulously designed with connective tissue to provide context from other movies established within that universe, but the world of The Gray Man and its inhabitants are wholly unfamiliar to audiences, with no connectivity to speak of (though they are clearly banking on this turning into a franchise) and precious few moments that set up important characters beyond a bunch of long-winded exposition. Imagine if the MCU simply began with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, with none of the previous movies existing, and you’ll get a feel of the oddly context-free plotting that this movie provides, as though there were several Gray Man movies before this one that have suddenly been wiped from our memories.

There are some entertaining parts to this movie, particularly Chris Evans who’s having fun chewing scenery left and right with his Ned Flanders moustache, and a small but memorable role by Bollywood star Dhanush as the only character who you’re remotely interested in seeing and learning more about, but it’s simply not enough to justify choosing this one over the dozens of better examples, let alone to rationalise the hefty $200 million price tag. A movie with that kind of budget cannot just simply be a parade of top-tier actors and filmmakers in front of a green-screen for two hours; you need to create characters who are interesting enough to follow, within a plot that doesn’t have to be entirely original but at least unique enough to stand out, and action that gets you excited with every punch, kick or explosion. Those are all things that The Gray Man – and, come to think of it, all those other Netflix blockbusters – sorely lacks, as if the streamer’s true intention was simply to show off its (now dwindling) wealth instead of actually providing solid content to keep subscribers from jumping ship.

Maybe, one day, they’ll finally make that kind of formidable blockbuster – but this certainly isn’t it.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Gray Man is a disappointingly mediocre Netflix blockbuster that sticks to its incredibly generic plotting with bland and uninteresting characters, and occasionally incomprehensible action that is nowhere near enough to justify its excessive $200 million budget – although a scenery-chewing Chris Evans in a Ned Flanders moustache might just come close.

The Gray Man is now available to stream on Netflix.

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