Now that Stranger Things is nearly done, it's fitting we get The Gray Man, which is supposed to be Netflix's next big thing. But as Stranger Things 4 proved, bigger isn't always exactly better.
Not only does The Gray Man star Captain America (the MCU original Chris Evans, that is), but it pits him against Ken himself (Ryan Gosling) in adaptation of the bestselling Mark Greaney spy novels. Also, it's directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, best known for directing four of the best Marvel movies (The Winter Soldier, Civil War, Infinity War and Endgame). On top of that, it reportedly had a budget of more than $200 million.
To see what all of the fuss is about, I saw The Gray Man (due on Netflix this Friday, July 22) in seemingly the last place its directors wanted me to: a movie theater. Yes, if you haven't heard, co-director Joe Russo told The Hollywood Reporter that "it’s an elitist notion to be able to go to a theater. It’s very f**king expensive. So, this idea that was created—that we hang on to—that the theater is a sacred space, is bulls**t." This practically egged me onto purchase my actual movie ticket, to see if this movie is worth going to in theaters.
The Gray Man review: What I didn't like
Okay, so, I don't think The Gray Man is great. You could tell that from my polite 3/5 star grade. And a lot of that plays off of its opening. The Gray Man begins not like a series that breaks new ground, but like practically every other one before it. The action, throughout, isn't exactly memorable. Then, when it teases an interesting centerpiece brawl, it diverges away into something else.
A CIA suit (played Billy Bob Thornton using some spare charisma) mumbles to inmate Cortland Gentry (Gosling) about joining his program to get out of trouble (Black Bird did this better, as did The Avengers). I thought he said it was "The Seer Program," and it turned out he said "The Sierra Program." I instantly wished I could turn on subtitles.
Then, we jump to a moodily-lit Bangkok club, where Gentry turns out to be a hitman with a conscience, refusing to pull the trigger when a child is a possible casualty. His boss for this mission — played by Bridgerton's 'hot duke' Regé-Jean Page — doesn't have this morality. These scenes are far too poorly lit to be memorable, and we learn Gentry's target is also a part of the same program. Something, vaguely, is wrong. Gentry, code-named Six, goes rogue, and everything goes wrong for him thereafter.
I concede that this part of the slow-burning first act may be catnip to the Jack Ryan crowd, but it does little for the rest of us. Someone with better enunciation shows up and we learn The Sierra Program is being undone, and that someone called The Old Man (which is not a reference to the Hulu series starring Jeff Bridges) is behind it all. This was where I wondered how on Earth I'd sit through 2+ hours of this, and if Netflix truly was the place to hit play (and then pause) on The Gray Man.
The Gray Man review: What I liked
The little scenes of espionage work, such as Six trying to free himself from a trap, work well. Admittedly, these scenes could have used a little more time to breathe, but they work.
Evans, free from the high road that Steve Rogers stuck to, is having a fun time in The Gray Man, and for a while it seems like he's the only one. Playing a creepy sociopath named Lloyd Hansen who sports a moustache that screams "villain," Evans seems to riff to his heart's content. It almost feels like he's playing an homage to Gary Oldman's Norman Stansfield from The Professional, as he's unhinged enough to lash out randomly while professional enough to get a CIA contract.
Eventually, Gosling is given scenes where he's emotionally available to actually connect with the audience and one of his costars. Primarily, we get to know Six through Claire (Julia Butters), a young girl he has a duty to protect. Fortunately, this doesn't get too deep into the "love wolf and cub" cliche/trope of protector here to save child (yet). Through their banter, we see that Six has some humor and heart. Of course, villainous Lloyd has more jokes, and he lands one zinger that will have you thinking about a very different movie.
The supporting cast do their best to help The Gray Man stay strong. Billy Bob Thornton gives his all, though his facial reactions while being tortured border on comedy or farce. Once co-star Ana de Armas actually gets to do anything, she makes you wonder what the wait was. Alfre Woodard shows up to impress and add some gravitas, and she (as always) is definitely worth her rate. Claire's a more believable child than the rash of precocious tykes we've seen in shows and movies recently.
The Gray Man review: Should you stream it?
As my The Gray Man review has shown, it's a traditional and serviceable action movie. I found it to be better than Red Notice, mostly because that movie's want to twist and turn didn't really land. The Gray Man knows what it is, and it's mostly a success at that.
The action scenes, I'll repeat, suffer from situations that are too dark to be visually entertaining, and a lack of anything truly memorable. There's a scene involving a public train that has a neat moment here and there, but its crescendo is anti-climactic.
This is all to say you shouldn't do what I did. Do not buy a ticket to see The Gray Man in theaters. Watch it at home, with properly calibrated expectations and (hopefully) Dolby Vision enabled on your TV. Those dark scenes need it.