Back in 2014, when brothers Anthony and Joe Russo directed their first MCU movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, much was made of how it channeled the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. Not only had Steve Rogers awoken from ice to a more cynical, nefarious age, he now found himself standing next to Robert Redford, whose long shadow stretches back to classic paranoia pictures Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.
Nine years and four movies later (MCU triumphs Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and misfiring PTSD crime drama Cherry), and the Russo brothers are at it again. A cat-and-mouse espionage thriller, The Gray Man is based on Mark Greaney’s novel, which Joe first started tinkering with while directing The Winter Soldier.
The titular antihero is Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling, back, praise be, from a self-imposed four-year exile after citing overexposure), sprung from serving a three-decade sentence at Florida State Prison to become a black-books operative for the CIA. Sierra Six, as he’s codenamed, is the best they have… at least until he’s assigned to kill a BAD GUY who turns out to be something rather less reductive and passes Six a chip detailing dark agency secrets.
Now our man is on the run and being chased down by Lloyd Hansen (Cap himself, Chris Evans), a freelance contractor not fettered by the CIA’s rulebook. “He has a higher kill count than the entire Mossad,” says the program’s chief (played, fully clothed, by Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page), and Hansen also has a trash ’tache, an armory of one-liners, and a sociopathic nature. "You wanna make an omelette, you gotta kill some people," he shrugs after yet another explosive takedown fails to put Gentry in the ground but rustles up enough collateral damage to fill a dozen morgues.
The Gray Man has but two distinguishing features. Firstly, you’ve got the leads’ considerable charisma, with Gosling’s signature minimalism (always chewing gum, he hasn’t much time for words) neatly balancing out Evans’ chirpy grotesque.
Secondly, there’s the succession of increasingly OTT set-pieces staged on planes, trams, and automobiles – one outrageous shootout in Prague took two months to capture and plays like the climax of The Wild Bunch shoved into a city-sized blender with the demolition derby of The Blue Brothers. Elsewhere, The Gray Man recalls the Bourne movies and those two action-figurehead Johns, Woo and Wick, as Hansen calls in “every grade-A wet team from here to Reykjavik”. Gentry, for his part, is here to kick ass, and he’s never all out of bubble gum.
Set-pieces and stars are often enough, at least for a Friday-night popcorner. But only once or twice does the elaborate mayhem approach the standards the Russos set themselves in the MCU (especially in The Winter Soldier). And like Michael Bay in Ambulance, the brothers are far too enamored with new-fangled drone tech – time and again the camera zips past the clashing protagonists and whizzes off down the full length of a street, barrel-rolling as it goes. Just why it does this other than it looks kinda cool is anybody’s guess.
You might find yourself wishing that the Russo bros had left their toys in the box at least until they sorted out the overall look of the picture. Murky in a manner that’s not moody but flat and drab, the aptly titled The Gray Man will likely fuel those Film Twitter arguments that cinematography is becoming a lost art.
Unlike onscreen fighting, which only gets better and better (imagine Roger Moore’s Bond trading close-up blows with Bourne or Wick). Here, the martial-arts fisticuffs have real punch, blows landing as hard as they did in Civil War’s iconic Cap versus Iron Man scrap.
There’s also the added bonus of Ana de Armas getting in on the action as Agent Dani Miranda, an ally of sorts for Six. OK, so her pin’s kept in place and she’s never allowed to detonate like she did as Bond’s fellow agent Paloma in No Time to Die, but there are hints of Miranda’s grace and gusto. No doubt she’ll play a bigger role in sequels and perhaps even land a spin-off movie, should The Gray Man prove golden with viewers.
Given this is an adap of Greaney’s first book in the series and the 12th drops next year, there’s a whole shadowy world to be explored. Let’s hope the plot thickens as we go along. Because although The Gray Man comes out blasting, that’s pretty much the extent of it. And with Top Gun: Maverick having only recently reminded us what a blockbuster can be, more shades of Gray are needed in future outings.
The Gray Man is in cinemas from July 15 and on Netflix from July 22. For more, check out our list of the best Netflix movies streaming right now.