Debate all you want about Netflix’s new action flick The Gray Man, but you can’t say it wasn’t an entertaining film. You can’t say it didn’t do its job as a blockbuster spy thriller. Shot on a 200 million dollar budget, set over 10 locations, and starring a stellar cast of beautiful people, it is the online streaming platform’s largest movie production to date. What started out as the usual troubled-secret-agent-gone-rogue kind of story ended up offering viewers a wonderfully refreshing take on the classic action hero trope – and the linchpin behind it all is none other than show lead Ryan Gosling. Spoilers ahead.
He plays the CIA-trained assassin codenamed Sierra Six who unexpectedly comes across damning evidence against senior members of the agency, putting him on the run, and triggering a global manhunt by top assassins and mercenaries all over the world. From the start to the end of this two-hour caper, Gosling has been chased, beaten, shot at, knifed, ambushed, pepper-sprayed, shot at, trapped underground, handcuffed to a bench and shot at…
Yet he always manages to escape by the hair of his teeth. No, scratch that, he looks as if he barely broke a sweat – and if we may add, not so much as a ding on that TAG Heuer Carrera Three Hands he wore throughout. Even if he had just fended off a team of henchmen on a moving airplane. Even if he had just left the entire historical centre of Prague in complete ruin. Heck, even if he had driven from Bangkok to Chiangmai (!) in a tuk-tuk.
Indeed, there are moments – several actually – where suspension of disbelief is needed to smooth over the plotline. Even with copious, gratuitous action sequences, witty ad-libbing, scorching one-liners, and numerous secret tricks of the CIA trade scattered throughout the film, The Gray Man is not without flaws.
Although, if you think about it, that is par for the course in a modern era action hero flick styled as an alchemic mix of James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Ethan Hunt with a smidge of MacGyver. There’s so much to say about the adventures and misadventures of Sierra Six that it’s impossible for everything to be squeezed into one single movie. And that – tracking story arches over a series of movies or episodes – is precisely what the Russo brothers are best known for.
The Gray Man is Gosling’s first stab as a secret agent and his first role in a real action movie. Seeing as the film is based on the Mark Greaney novel of the same name, it won't be his last. Because likelier than not, this is going to be the next big action hero movie franchise, but with one primary difference. That it was produced and filmed in a post-pandemic, post-metoo, post-woke culture, post-everything world. Critical elements that occupy the minds of many of today’s viewers, and that form a murky pool through which many of today’s showrunners, directors and producers are still navigating. Happily, The Gray Man manages to check all the right boxes without leaving the film over-encumbered with all the important values.
Despite the obvious clichés – hello again USB key containing every dirty secret known to the agency – the film does its level best to reinvent a few cinematic tropes long embraced by the Hollywood genre. Most noticeably, the clean absence of female objectification. Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas stars opposite Ryan Gosling but plays the role of partner and ally rather than love interest, and proves more than capable of fighting her own battles thank you very much. In fact, one of the film's most gripping combat sequences was that between de Armas and Indian actor Dhanush.
There is a lady in Six’s life, of course – the producers aren't about to throw the baby out with the bathwater, are they? Only, she’s important to him not for romantic reasons, but rather, as the closest thing he has to family. Plus she’s adorable as heck.
Equally entertaining to watch is Chris Evans’ over-the-top portrayal of the film’s main antagonist, Lloyd Hansen. A trouble-seeking ego-centric mercenary who’s always spoiling for a fight and would stop at nothing to take down his target. Not so much for the money as for the thrill, which is much fun but not without a downside. All that gratuitous violence veers ever so dangerously close to surrealism that, rather than watching a movie, one begins to feel like a lead player in an RPG shooter game.
Thankfully there’s witty dialogue in spades to help us snap back to the movie’s reality. Six shows equal proficiency dodging bullets as he does trading barbs with his wisecracking enemies and allies. Gosling credits that to the directors who left lots of room for improv and last-minute re-writes. “The Russos are great like that,” he comments in an exclusive interview for Esquire Singapore. “[They’re] Always taking things apart and putting them back together. I can imagine some directors working at that scale might be hesitant to take their movie out of the garage for a joy ride. The Russos just drive it like they own it.”
Which brings us to Gosling’s well-timed entry to the action movie world. His unassuming, not-overly-handsome demeanour couples with naturally chaotic-good vibes to give us a new-age reluctant hero who might kill ruthlessly but not without a vital moral compass that remains mostly intact. One who doesn’t need a sexy female counterpoint to complete his narrative, or an arsenal of ultra-high-tech equipment and instruments to carry out his missions. One who could be trusted to deconstruct every problem and solve it in his own way – and, as TAG Heuer would undoubtedly be itching to say, absolutely doesn’t crack under pressure.
The Gray Man is now streaming on Netflix.