If there's one part of the entertainment industry that Netflix has yet to crack, it's building an original and genuinely exciting movie franchise.
The streaming giant has enjoyed relative success with some in-house movie series, but most fit snugly into the oft-disparaged rom-com genre – The Princess Switch, Tall Girl, and The Kissing Booth being three such examples.
- Limited theatrical release in US and UK on July 15
- Launches worldwide on Netflix on July 22
- Directed by the Russo brothers
- Stars Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, and Regé-Jean Page among other A-list stars
- Based on Mark Greaney's spy thriller novel series
- May be the first entry in The Gray Man film franchise
Other successful Netflix movies – Red Notice, Army of the Dead, Extraction, Enola Holmes, and The Old Guard – may have had sequels greenlit by the streamer. It's unclear, though, if one or more of this quintet can sustain a movie franchise in the long run.
The Gray Man, Netflix's latest big-budget film, has the potential to do just that. With 11 novels (and counting) to draw from in Mark Greaney's thriller series, a sizable all-star cast, and veteran Marvel movie directors in the Russo brothers at the helm, The Gray Man has the ingredients necessary to become Netflix's first truly electrifying movie franchise.
A Gray Man film series is dependent on how strong its opening gambit is, though – so, is it any good? In short: yes. The Gray Man is an entertaining and explosive action spy-thriller that finally puts Netflix's "cash is no object" blueprint to good use. Sure, its plot lacks originality – viewers who primarily consume espionage genre-based content won't find anything new here. But The Gray Man makes up for its somewhat formulaic story with tense and high-octane action, stunning cinematography, and a thriving cast that revels in the complexity of their characters.
I spy with my little eye
The Gray Man stars Ryan Gosling as Court Gentry, aka Sierra Six, a CIA operative (and the titular "Gray Man") who carries out covert missions for the United States' primary counterintelligence agency.
However, during an assignment in Bangkok, Gentry unearths a dark agency secret – one that concerns a key CIA employee in Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page). Refusing to hand over the sensitive data to his superiors, including Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick), Gentry goes on the run from the very organization he's employed by. To stop Gentry leaking the compromising data, Carmichael and Brewer turn to the sociopathic and menacing Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a private sector hitman and ex-Sierra program participant, to lead the hunt for Gentry's head.
With few allies to call on, Gentry enlists the help of fellow CIA agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) and former Sierra program direcor Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) to evade his pursuers. Cue an elaborate, globetrotting game of cat and mouse that puts Gentry, Hansen, and everyone else's skills, resolve, physicality, and morality to the ultimate test.
If that synopsis sounds like a cut and paste job from any number of spy-centric films, it's largely because it is. The Bourne series, Salt, Atomic Blonde, and some entries in the James Bond franchise are centered around a similar, primary narrative of a government agent becoming a fugitive of the state. In that sense, The Gray Man's overarching plot is uninspiring, ticking off every conventional story beat on the spy film genre checklist.
Sure, as the stakes exponentially increase throughout its two-hour runtime, The Gray Man becomes an entertaining watch. If you're after a movie that'll subvert your expectations of the spy genre, or introduce a new way of telling a story focused on the world of espionage, though, you may be disappointed.
What makes The Gray Man a compelling watch, however, is its cast of likeable and unpleasant characters.
For one, Gosling is an inspired choice for the lead role of Gentry/Sierra Six. Gosling's pleasing blend of charisma, stoicism, and enigmatism makes Gentry relatable and a modern day take on the classic action hero formula. Flashbacks to Gentry's life pre-Sierra program humanize him in a way that other spy movies sometimes fail to do with their protagonists; backstory elements that explain Gentry's motives and actions to viewers without the film becoming mired in unnecessary character exposition.
Once the movie's main plot kicks in, Gosling's Gentry spends a fair chunk of time working alongside de Armas' Miranda who, despite de Armas' growing stature, is slightly underused, at least in the movie's opening stages. With Gosling and Evans – more on him in just a second – being the film's leads, de Armas' Miranda periodically takes a backseat in proceedings. Sure, de Armas gets her share of top-tier action moments – she plays a significant and crowd pleasing role in the film's final act – and amusing one liners. But, given de Armas' acting talents, it's a slight pity she's relegated to the background every so often.
Still, Miranda's rationale for helping Gentry, coupled with her moral compass pointing in the same direction as his, make them a formidable duo. Even so, it's evident that they haven't collaborated much before, with Gentry and Miranda's partnership being dysfunctional on occasion. That's not a bad thing from an audience perspective, however, as the episodic breakdown in communications between the pair make for some of the movie's more humorous moments.
Page and Henwick revel in their roles as morally gray and sinister duo Carmichael and Brewer. The former Bridgerton and Matrix Resurrections stars clearly relish the chance to play individuals who are a far cry from the "white knight" personas they portrayed in previous productions – and it certainly shows. Meanwhile, Thornton's Fitzroy and Julia Butters' Claire Fitzroy are equally fun to watch even if, in the latter's case, her inclusion is solely as a routine plot device that drives the narrative forward.
It's Evans, though, who is The Gray Man's true star. This isn't the first time the former Captain America actor has played a villain – he's done likewise in projects including Knives Out and Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Still, Evans' Hansen is a nasty piece of work and Evans has a blast portraying someone less righteous than Cap or the Pixar's in-universe movie version of Buzz Lightyear.
Any time the cold, calculating, and menacing Hansen is on screen, he elevates the scene and those around him. Whether it's his sociopathic tendencies taking center stage in a torture scene, or the constant displays of arrogance that prevent him from completing his mission to bring Gentry down, Evans' Hansen is a joy to watch. His snarky comments, usually directed at Henwick's Brewer, are sure to provoke laughs aplenty. Meanwhile, the chemistry between Gosling and Evans' characters make for tense viewing when they share screen time. Their rare run-ins are certainly memorable, which makes it all the more frustrating that they don't meet more often throughout the story.
Thrills, spills, and automobiles
While The Gray Man's plot isn't up to much, the same can't be said about its action sequences.
The Russo brothers make the most of Netflix's sizable production budget, delivering numerously creative spectacles as Gentry tries to evade Hansen, the CIA, and every mercenary on the planet. Battles between Gentry and his pursuers are intense and frenetic affairs, refusing to let up or pause for breath until something significant happens on the screen.
Gosling's Gentry is put through the wringer on multiple occasions but, like any great operative, he has a knack and artistic flair for getting himself out of a tight spot.
Whether it's using flares as makeshift smokescreens-cum-weapons during a breathtaking military cargo plane sequence, escaping from a temporary prison cell, or using his environment to help him line up his shots, Gentry's Sierra training clearly paid off. It's apparent that every set-piece in The Gray Man, no matter how big or small, has painstakingly been planned out by the Russos, as well as the film's stunt choreographers, cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, and other production departments. The movie's action sequences are satisfyingly realistic – as authentic as you can be for a spy thriller, anyway – and ratchet the suspense up with each passing set-piece.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for The Gray Man's somewhat shoddy CGI and green screen technology. A couple of scenes, most notably during the military cargo plane and tram battle sequences, feel amateurish, with certain VFX shots not up to the standard you'd expect from a film of this size. Given The Gray Man's reported $200 million budget, you would expect better in these situations.
At least the cinematography is up to scratch; the film's sweeping, soaring, and swinging camerawork capturing the majesty of the movie's multiple locations and stylistic fight sequences. Although, if you dislike the Russo brothers' penchant for filling the screen with giant words whenever a new location pops up as part of the plot, you may want to brace yourself before pressing play on The Gray Man.
The Gray Man doesn't reinvent the spy-thriller film genre – there are no seismic shocks from a plot perspective, plus there are a few production and narrative oddities that prevent it from being a top-tier espionage flick. But, thanks to its talented cast, riveting action, and pleasing cinematography, it's still an absorbing and suspense-filled movie that should fulfil audience expectations.
There are enough loose threads to pick up in a sequel or two – or more, if viewers really want to see The Gray Man turned into a franchise. Simultaneously, though, The Gray Man's self-contained story will allow some to check it out, decide it's not for them, and not have to concern themselves with watching future installements. That is, if Netflix greenlights any.
Pre-review reactions to The Gray Man positioned it as a James Bond meets The Fast and the Furious, and it's hard to argue against that. Like those franchises, The Gray Man is a film you can enjoy without having to completely engage your brain. A summer blockbluster-style film that you can stream from the comfort of your own home, The Gray Man is worth your time – and how often have we been able to say that about one of Netflix's original movie offerings?
The Gray Man will be available to watch in select theaters in the US and UK on Friday, July 15. It'll also release on Netflix worldwide on Friday, July 22.