Published in 2009, The Gray Man is the first in a series of novels by Mark Greaney that featured Court Gentry, a former CIA agent and the eponymous Gray Man. Numerous attempts have been made to adapt the novel into a film, with Mission: Impossible director Christopher McQuarrie previously attached to an unfulfilled project in 2016. Six years later, the film adaptation of Greaney’s novel is finally coming to fruition with the most expensive Netflix movie so far, with a cinematic release before hitting the streaming service a week later.
Starring an ensemble cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, The Matrix Resurrections’ Jessica Henwick, and Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page, The Gray Man sees CIA mercenary Gentry (Gosling) go on the run after inadvertently uncovering agency secrets and is subsequently hunted by an array of international assassins, including psychopath Lloyd Hansen (Evans).
At the beginning of the film, the incarcerated Gentry is quickly enlisted into a program led by CIA bigwig Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) that recruits convicts with a promise of a ‘get out of jail free card’ in exchange for lifelong servitude to the CIA. 18 years on, Gentry–now known as Sierra Six–has become a skilled assassin and is proving to be an indispensable asset to the CIA. But when a target puts Six into a compromising position with a pendant containing damning evidence, it doesn’t take long before Six becomes a lucrative target.
At first glance, The Gray Man has the hallmarks of a modern espionage film, with its dimly lit visuals and the cloak-and-dagger approach of its characters. There is mystique emanating from the narrative, not to mention the shadiness that Six has to contend with. Yet despite the murky visuals, the plot suffers from a lack of intrigue. This is mostly due to the premature reveal of The Gray Man’s main antagonist, leaving the fate (and pacing) of the film in the hands of a pendant–the film’s proverbial MacGuffin.
While crying out for tension, the plot elements throw The Gray Man off. Combining components reminiscent of the Mission: Impossible series and weirdly, the 1985 Arnie movie Commando, there are different details that aim to humanize Six, an engaging and efficient killer, and explore his relationship with Fitzroy while providing the crux of the plot. These moments mainly revolve around Fitzroy’s niece Claire (Julia Butters), Six’s one-time ward. Although these snippets of Six and Claire’s friendship are timely and tender, they threaten to distract audiences from the chase and complicate what can be an entertaining action thriller, not to mention an engaging hero.
In addition, an underlying misogynist tone prevents its female cast members–notably Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, and, to an extent, Alfre Woodard–from shining in the same limelight as their male counterparts. This sense of chauvinism enables the male characters to exude an arrogance that comes from a sense of superiority–from the calculating CIA head Carmichael (Page) to the smug and brash Lloyd, both of whom are almost drunk on the power and wealth of means at their disposal. Coming across as untouchable, the male characters unsurprisingly dominate the film with their straightforward, head-on, kill-first-ask-questions-later approach while the female characters are either dismissed scapegoats (Henwick’s Suzanne) or fall into tropes (Butters’ damsel in distress).
This is a shame because the cast ensemble is one of the great things about The Gray Man. Gosling and de Armas shine in fast-paced, action-filled roles that also display a calmness that grounds the plot. Page continues to show great range after his performances in Bridgerton and Sylvie’s Love and Evans is again having a whale of a time playing another villain, delivering some of the film’s more memorable lines and unexpected moments of humor amid its simplistic premise.
Behind the camera, the Russo brothers shape The Gray Man into an international affair, taking Six around the globe while slowly developing and uncovering the growing agenda against him. As their direction (and Stephen F. Windon’s cinematography) quickly switches from the intimate to the intricate, there is an aesthetic imbalance that can concurrently thrill and confuse audiences through a multitude of explosions, interrogations, and visceral fight scenes. Along with the occasionally upbeat soundtrack, it is hard to gauge the direction of The Gray Man–not to mention potential sequels.
Overall, The Gray Man benefits from its talented ensemble cast, the Russos’ creative flair, and strong action work–it is just unfortunate that its frenetic pacing doesn’t complement the monotone premise, so it fails to revolutionize the spy thriller genre.