Good news for people who’ve always wanted to see the fake movies that Chris Evans’ “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” character — blowhard action star Lucas Lee — made before exploding into a pile of coins at the bottom of a Toronto staircase: Netflix just spent at least $200 million to shoot one for real. Despite being adapted from Mark Greaney’s 2009 spy novel of the same name, “The Gray Man” feels like it was even more directly extrapolated from the poster for Lee’s blockbuster smash “You Just Don’t Exist,” which features a photo of Evans grimacing into a telephone above a tagline that reads: “Cole Hazard just got a call saying he has 89 minutes to live… from himself.”
In fairness to Anthony and Joe Russo, whose post-“Avengers” output also includes directing one of 2021’s worst films (“Cherry”) and producing one of 2022’s best (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”), “The Gray Man” dares to flip the old Lucas Lee formula on its ass. Yes, Evans still spends most of this movie threatening people over the phone, but here he’s been cast as the bad guy; it’s Ryan Gosling who’s been cast in the Cole Hazard role, the iconic “Barbie Set Photos” star playing CIA killer Court Gentry (codename: Sierra Six).
And this time, the call he gets from his future self is coming from inside the house, or at least from another room in the Bangkok skyscraper where Court has been dispatched to assassinate Sierra Four, a fellow mercenary in the black ops program that recruited Court out of prison and offered him “freedom” in exchange for a lifetime of doing America’s dirty work. Sierra Four reminds our hero that gray men don’t get to retire, and — with his dying breath — cautions Sierra Six that he’ll be the CIA’s next target. Spoiler alert: You’ll wish he only had 89 minutes to live.
So begins a “blockbuster” so big that you can actually feel the price of your Netflix subscription going up with each new scene, this listless simulacrum of a summer action movie bouncing from one lavish Asian or European location to the next as it searches in vain for the streamer’s first bonafide popcorn franchise. The algorithmic results don’t reflect well on the Russo brothers’ directing chops — their monumental spandex operas seldom required and never displayed the kind of muscular imagination needed to stage Michael Bay-like fight sequences — but “The Gray Man” is even more damning for Netflix itself, particularly so far as it epitomizes the streamer’s penchant for producing mega-budget movies that feel like glorified deepfakes of classic multiplex fare.
Netflix tends to succeed when it empowers people to create art that no other studio would fund (“The Irishman”) or support as strongly (“The Lost Daughter”), but it nosedives into the uncanny valley of “content” whenever it tries to replicate the same Hollywood fare that it’s determined to replace. “The Gray Man” is not and was never going to be as insufferable as the Rawson Thurber Marshall joint it dethrones as Netflix’s most expensive original feature, but it’s somehow even more soulless for how shamelessly it launders the things that used to make going to the movies in the middle of July so much fun. Where “Red Notice” was at least dumb and cartoonish in uniquely modern ways, “The Gray Man” feels like it was generated by a neural network that had been forced to watch every “Jason Bourne” sequel at gunpoint. Where that film used all of its muscle to squeeze an ounce of chemistry from a cast of human brands, this one seems perversely determined not to distill even the faintest trace of charisma from some of the world’s most winning stars, exciting new talents, and veteran character actors.
To that point, my very first thought during “The Gray Man” was how good it is to hear Gosling’s voice again. The actor has been AWOL since “First Man” in 2018, and his smooth Canadian slur kicks things off on such a viscerally unique tone that it’s tempting to forgive the triteness of the Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely dialogue he’s delivering with it. We meet Court Gentry during a flashback to his days in prison, when the young inmate is visited by a CIA suit by the name of Donald Fitzroy (MVP Billy Bob Thornton, his Saltine-dry performance splintering into unexpected new shapes while everyone around him is just thirsty for something to do). You know the drill: Court does the whole “sarcastic delinquent” routine while Fitzroy reads through his file for our benefit, eventually offering Court a get-out-of-jail-free card in exchange for his mortal soul. “You’d exist in the gray,” the aging spy admin tells his potential new recruit, “but it’ll all be worth it for those sweet, sweet view hours.”
Okay, maybe that last part goes unspoken. The truth is that Court’s new life as Sierra Six doesn’t seem to offer all that many rewards. When the film cuts forward to the present, we find that the CIA has neutered the once-pugnacious Court into a dead-behind-the-eyes murder drone who does what he’s told, with most of his orders coming from the transparently corrupt shitbag who replaced the retired Fitzroy as head of the Sierra program (Denny Carmichael is played by “Bridgerton” sensation Regé-Jean Page, miserable in the role of a gallingly basic villain who ends most of his scenes by throwing a cup or a plate at his office wall in frustration).
It isn’t long before Carmichael decides he needs to cover up his tracks and end the Sierra program with extreme prejudice, so he dispatches his second-in-command Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick, as suffocated here as she was shine-off-the-screen transcendent in “The Matrix Resurrections”) to get the job done, Carmichael making it clear that he’s going to run out of kitchenware if she doesn’t catch J̶a̶s̶o̶n̶ ̶B̶o̶u̶r̶n̶e̶ Court Gentry soon. Well, that proves easier said than done — even after Carmichael kidnaps Fitzroy’s pre-teen niece, played by “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” highlight Julia Butters — leaving the CIA is left no choice but to bust out the big guns and hire Chris Evans’ psychopathic mercenary, Lloyd Hansen.
And let me tell you, this Lloyd guy isn’t just regular nuts, he’s mustache nuts. Most demented action movie antagonists roll up wearing a suit or some kind of function-oriented body armor, but not Lloyd. No, Lloyd stalks Court from Baku to Berlin dressed like he’s on his way to a key party in suburban Connecticut circa 1973, complete with skin-tight knit polos, butt-hugging slacks, and an endless supply of smarmy one-liners like “Make him dead,” and everyone’s favorite, already immortalized in the trailer: “If you want to make an omelet, you gotta kill some people.” At one point he chides someone for saying “preternatural,” because “that’s an asshole word.” It’s like watching Captain America cosplay as Vince Vaughn in a performance that feels like he’s constantly looking for a chance to stick his tongue into someone’s ear. A more interesting film would have let him, or at least allowed the character’s freak flag to fly at higher than half-mast.
Evans has always been repugnantly sharp for someone so handsome — even if the actor himself has yet to acknowledge the sheer comic perfection of his Freddie Prinze Jr. parody in “Not Another Teen Movie” — and his heel turn in “Knives Out” proved that he knows how to salt up his screen presence when a part calls for that. Alas, with the possible exception of his stint as Buzz Lightyear and that one scene in “Snowpiercer” where he monologues about eating babies, Evans has never been flatter or less funny than he is here. Lloyd would seem to be a natural foil for someone as stoic as Sierra Six, but his character never develops beyond the premise of “what if there was a bad guy named Lloyd?” Not for nothing, but Lloyd is also a terrible manager, even going so far as to execute the one freelance mercenary who actually does something to contribute (and in full view of his team!). The guy doesn’t seem crazy so much as he is careless, and the turnover rate among his assassins must be abysmal.
Of course, Sierra Six doesn’t help with that. There are a wide array of action sequences in “The Gray Man,” all of which end with Gosling killing a handful of Lloyd’s henchmen without breaking a sweat. Not unlike the setpieces in the Russos’ “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” most of the fights here are just visceral and compelling enough to hit you over the head with their untapped potential.
A crunchy but chaotic mid-air brawl resolves with an apathy that’s wild to see at this level (I’m calling for a ban on action scenes where cars plummet out of planes until we figure out what’s going on), while a climactic firefight on the grounds of a moonlit French chateau proves repetitive long before the Russos throw in the towel and settle for the old “lost in a hedge maze” routine. Sometimes the camera flies through a fight as if it were strapped to a jet-powered drone, that empty sizzle failing to compensate for the palpable lack of craft. The Tamil star Dhanush — who drops into “The Gray Man” for just long enough to make you wish you were watching a more colorful kind of blockbuster — doesn’t even stick around for the finale. He literally looks at the camera, laments a certain lack of integrity, and peaces out. Good for him. Ana de Armas doesn’t get so clean an exit, but she has no trouble flexing her action star bonafides as Court’s most valuable ally.
Only a sprawling chase through the streets of Vienna manages to achieve a coherent sense of scale or velocity — it’s always nice to see trams get some time in the spotlight — even that sequence is short on memorable beats of destruction, and Court’s unflappability isn’t a satisfying enough grace note for a character with so little else to offer beyond his cool. His silly reaction shot at the end of the scene’s last stunt speaks to a larger problem with the role.
Gosling is a great choice to play an implosive spy with a good heart and some long-suppressed family issues (I won’t reveal the uncredited actor who plays Court’s father, but he gives what might just be the most thankless two-scene performance in the history of film), and yet the character’s mottled contours are buried too deep to feel. Perhaps they’ll become more compelling in future installments — a sequel is already in the works — but that’s little consolation after sitting through an entire movie that needs Court’s search for Fitzroy’s kidnapped niece to double as a chance for self-discovery.
The only detail about Court that stuck with me is the character’s Sisyphus tattoo, which “The Gray Man” allows Gosling to explain with typically casual panache. More than just an obvious metaphor for a guy who’s trudging uphill to get out from under his government’s thumb, the imagery also seems to reflect Netflix’s entire approach to blockbuster movies. The streamer appears determined to keep pushing $200 million boulders up the hill for all eternity, no matter how futile the company’s mission to bring the multiplex experience to your couch. Then again, the Netflix model doesn’t care how many boulders roll back down to the bottom — it only cares about how long we stick around to watch.
“The Gray Man” will open in select theaters on Friday, July 15. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, July 22.