Netflix has had a pretty bumpy ride with it’s Original action films. They’ve found success with relatively smaller movies like Kate and Extraction, but their attempts to deliver star-filled action/comedies has resulted in turds like Red Notice and The Man from Toronto. That history would suggest that their latest endeavor, the $200 million international assassin thriller, The Gray Man, is destined for the trash heap, but surprise! Turns out a movie can have numerous issues while still delivering an entertaining time filled with solid action and outsized personality.
We first meet the soon to-be-named Six (Ryan Gosling) as a young man serving a long sentence for killing his abusive father. A stranger named Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) arrives offering him a gig as a CIA assassin, and years later he’s one of the agency’s best. When his latest target passes along critical intel regarding Six’s boss, Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), he finds himself on the run from dozens of international killers led by an ex-CIA, now freelance whackjob, named Lloyd (Chris Evans). The chase leaves a trail of carnage and destruction through Europe as Six races to save a young girl held hostage by madman Lloyd and his trigger-happy henchmen.
The ideal adaptation of a novel walks a fine line in capturing the book’s strengths, character, and narrative center while still being its own thing. Changes between mediums are inevitable, but if a film keeps the soul of the book the odds of it being a success are greatly improved. Mark Greaney‘s 2009 novel is a slick, entertaining, tactical-oriented tale of an ex-CIA assassin on the run from an international assortment of killers. The action is frequent and explosive but grounded, the characters are smartly drawn, and the story is straightforward and propulsive. Anthony & Joe Russo‘s 2022 adaptation of The Gray Man is… some of those things while still finding more than a few of its own highlights along the way.
The film’s two-hour running time is pretty packed with action beats, and they run the gamut from basic to stylish to truly effective and entertaining. Happily, the duds come early, and even better? They’re often attractive set-pieces despite being relative stinkers in regard to the actual action. The first is an assassination set against a backdrop of colorful nightclub lights, fireworks, and milky glass floors. Another sees Six fight his way off a cargo plane that’s soon filled with bodies, debris, and more digital smoke, and things only get worse when a fall through the air becomes an ugly stew of CG bodies. The Russos seem almost intent on distracting viewers from the action itself which is too frequently shot overly tight with rapid cuts.
It gets better, though, as The Gray Man eventually finds its way by trusting more in the performers than in the digital effects and “cool” locales. A fantastic set-piece in Prague starts with an assault on Alfre Woodard’s corner apartment before spilling into the streets for a fairly epic gun battle. Six is handcuffed to a bunch through much of it which works to create an interesting dynamic of circumstances and challenges, and while the scene eventually devolves into the kind of CG-fueled superhero antics the Russos are more familiar with it remains a hell of a time. The film’s best beats come in the form of simpler but superior hand-to-hand combat scenes involving Six, Lloyd, the Lone Wolf (Dhanush), and Agent Miranda (Ana de Armas). These are the kind of practical thrills that the filmmakers brought to the best parts of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and they rock.
The script (by Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely) does a poor job adapting Greaney’s story and characters — the title character in particular is sad, one-note take on the book’s very rich creation — while still giving most of the cast plenty to play with. Gosling’s straight-faced but flippant assassin sometimes jars with the death toll around him, but it’s never a bad thing when he gets to revisit a character who’s The Nice Guys (2016) adjacent. Yes, the Shane Black musk is strong on this one. Evans, meanwhile, is having an absolute blast as the baddie, something he’s clearly relishing in his post-MCU career. From memorable one-liners (including a fun dig at “Ken Doll” Gosling) to some darkly funny cruelty, he quite literally steals every scene he’s in from the good guys. De Armas gets in a few fun licks, but shame on the Russos for not letting Jessica Henwick cut loose even once.
This being a Russo film it’s no surprise that the visuals range from the fine and fun to some unfortunate digital backdrops, but it’s rarely egregious in its ugliness. Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon even finds some attractive locales in Austria, France, the Czech Republic, and, sure, California. Drone use can’t rival what Michael Bay pulls off with this year’s Ambulance, but while early shots here feel like travelogue outtakes later camera moves add energy and thrills in and out of the action.
On the Netflix Original action scale, The Gray Man lands high when compared to their other “blockbuster” releases. The cg stinks and the script has the expected silliness in the details — Six drives a tuk tuk a ridiculous seven-hundred miles at one point — but there’s personality to spare and plenty of thrilling action beats to enjoy. So yeah, here’s hoping Netflix finds a franchise in Greaney’s ongoing eleven-book series and brings us more globe-hopping hitman shenanigans soon.