In a year featuring at least three Marvel sequels and yet another installation in the Jurassic franchise that, ironically, will never die, “The Gray Man” is a welcome change of pace.
Released on Netflix last month, the series is based on a novel by the writer who helped expand Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” universe.
And though “The Gray Man” series does contain a dozen books to mine for sequels, fans of spy thrillers will enjoy the introduction of Sierra Six (played by Ryan Gosling) to the cadre of modern action heroes.
Six is a CIA assassin, high in ethics and low in emotion, making Gosling the perfect man for the role. After killing a “bad guy,” Six is recruited from prison to work for the CIA, joining the gray men: “nameless assassins with limited morality.”
Yet Six has a strong moral code, part of what makes this hardened killer so compelling. We eventually learn that he was in prison for killing a man in order to save someone close to him and most of the film revolves around Six’s quest to protect a young girl with a heart condition.
If this sounds a little on the nose, it is. But you’ll be so distracted by the fight scenes — Six battling a foe amid exploding fireworks, Six fighting for an enemy’s parachute while careening out of an airplane, Six leaping to safety from an exploding streetcar — that you probably won’t notice.
Despite its title, “The Gray Man” is pretty black and white. It bucks the trend of moping superheroes and morally dubious protagonists who make you wonder whatever happened to the simple “good vs. bad” action flicks of yesteryear.
Six is fiercely loyal to his handler and father figure Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), as well as Fitzroy’s niece, Claire (Julia Butters), whom he is tasked with protecting. He develops a friendship with Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), a fellow agent who begrudgingly becomes his ally.
The film’s conceit is simple: tasked with killing another agent who is supposedly selling compromising national security secrets, Six takes a mysterious necklace from the dying man, who tells him to question the narrative that CIA leadership is feeding him.
The necklace, it turns out, hides an encrypted drive containing blackmail on Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), a CIA leader who doesn’t care how many heads must roll before that incriminating evidence is destroyed. So Six recruits Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), an ex-CIA agent known for “bad ethics, zero impulse control, unsanctioned torture.” Lloyd then captures Fitzroy and Claire in an effort to draw out the elusive Six.
Besides its star-studded cast, the film features some smart cinematography, strong use of color, and a good soundtrack (a lot of viewers seem to have gotten Mark Lindsay’s 1970s classic Silver Bird stuck in their heads).
“The Gray Man” isn’t as lighthearted as, say, a typical Ryan Reynolds movie or other films directed by the Russo brothers, but it does have its share of humor.
When Fitzroy attempts to intimidate Lloyd by telling him that “Six’s will is preternatural compared to yours,” Lloyd hits him in the face, responding: “Don’t say preternatural to me. It’s an asshole word.”
Chris Evans succeeds as Lloyd, thanks partially to his mustache, a look that does Evans no favors but really sells him as the vain and heartless villain, a fitting foil to Ryan Gosling’s unpretentious Six. While Lloyd was kicked out of the CIA after less than six months, Six has become the agency’s top assassin through his focus and level-headedness. Lloyd is a loose canon; Six is a sniper.
Their approaches to life are equally different: Lloyd has no problem killing and torturing his way toward his goals. Six almost blows a mission at the beginning of the film because a child gets in the way of his shot; killing, for him, is only a protective measure.
“The Gray Man” cost Netflix a whopping $200 million, making it the streaming service’s most expensive project ever. And, while co-director Joe Russo likened it to “business-focused content” that allows more artistic films to find funding, it’s not without merit.
While other heroes may find themselves struggling against moral codes, Six primarily struggles against his own fate. Since his prison sentence was commuted only for him to serve the CIA for the next 18 years, it doesn’t seem like the agency has prepared an exit strategy for him. He likens himself to Sisyphus, the mythical Greek king who twice cheated death only to be sentenced by Zeus to push a boulder endlessly up a hill.
And we know that he will keep pushing the boulder, as the film’s ending hints that the CIA rot goes deeper than Carmichael, and Six still has his hands full protecting Claire. “The Gray Man” may be setting itself up as another franchise, but with “Jack Ryan” filming its last season and the search for a new James Bond still going, there might be enough room for another classic action hero.
Madeline Fry Schultz (@madelineefry) is the assistant contributors editor at the Washington Examiner.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Daily Wire.