The word “blockbuster” etymologically comes from news reporting of the allied bombs rained on fascist Italy. They demolished entire blocks. Eventually, it became shorthand for something shocking—and then about a decade later, to specifically designate movies of a broad appeal and massive cultural impact. Blockbusters, in the modern sense of the term, have a certain weight and import to them; the important movies that drive discourse and leave a mark, somehow or other. The most expensive Netflix production so far, Anthony and Joe Russo’s The Gray Man certainly feels like the studio’s first true blockbuster.
Ryan Gosling plays a sterling Sierra Six, a man incarcerated on vaguely noble charges hired as an operative by the Central Intelligence Agency to execute and assassinate as the government demands. After agreeing to the CIA’s terms, Six is completely in the gray: all records of his former person are made non-existent. A decade or so later, Six is sent to remove another target, and it becomes apparent he doesn’t typically permit much thought to the personalities he’s supposed to nullify. But after a child stumbles into his crosshairs, Six’s ability to murder without collateral is obnubilated. Things get even more complicated when he confronts the target, a fellow Sierra operative who hands Six an encrypted flash drive with his dying gesture—a gesture that makes Gosling’s Six question the program that saved him from a prison cell.
The Gray Man succeeds precisely where earlier attempts failed. For myself, star performances and expensive grand sets are two non-negotiable ingredients of a blockbuster. The Russo brothers’ newest film has both. (And maybe it’s just a two-ingredient genre film, but that’s perfectly fine with me). The end product manages to deliver the best Netflix original since The Disciple (2020), and come 7/22, it will likely be the most entertaining in-house production on the platform.
Good or bad, I think of a star performance as a marketable and (somewhat) unique performance that is dependent on the audience’s parasocial relationship with the actor and their larger filmography. Whether it be Bright (2017), 6 Underground (2019), or Red Notice (2021), Netflix originals until now haven’t successfully delivered any star performances. That’s not to say they didn’t throw money at star power. Nor is it to say they haven’t had brilliant performances by some of the world’s great talents. But their attempts always felt less like Alec Guinness in Star Wars or Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick—performances dependent on the stars themselves—and more like the fading twilight of a genre star making straight-to-TV action flicks, a bit like the great Brendan Fraser or the not-so-great Orlando Bloom. Until The Gray Man.
Gosling emits a performance unique to Ryan Gosling. Not annoyingly quippy and only adjacently stoic, I believed he could have been a walking prison sentence turned super-assassin. His Ken doll charm, Armstrong loneliness, and general Gosling-ness more than simply influence Six; they define him.
With only the opening recruitment scene occurring before the time jump, the tonal change before and after the jump are night and day. Before undermining his own morals with a decade as a governmental killer, Gosling plays a more agitated and less serious Six; after, he’s more subtle, worn, even methodical. Like the best spies in the genre, Gosling commands with the full authority of a professional killer. The rest of the movie takes this professionalism as a starting place. A moral crisis jolts an unlearning of this trained methodical precision, the very thing that made him an excellent spy of spies to begin with. By the end, he’s almost tender but not quite. The believability of the tonal change is earned not in the writing room (more could have been done there) but in Gosling’s previous roles: as a loner, as a romantic, as an every-man turned killer.
When the CIA can’t bring him in, they resort to trigger-happy private contractors. Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a former CIA agent dismissed for unsanctioned torture and brutality, brutes like a comic-book villain. He’s evil to the point of silliness. And like Gosling, Evans’ filmography is inseparable from the role. Evans—especially in bulky form—is inseparable from Americana. This creates an almost interesting political dynamic in which the venture capitalist is but a helpful and dangerous outsider to the essence of government, whereas the everyman that just wants to retire brings salvation to the internal government program.
At times I became convinced Evans was purposefully channeling a better-dressed version of Blackwater CEO and founder Erik Prince, whose private military company massacred 17 innocent and unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007. Infamously and frequently in the spotlight for Blackwater, Betsy Devos’ brother Erik could be related to a bloodthirsty leech and it wouldn’t surprise many. I always found myself disturbed by Prince’s smile– and Lloyd sure commits a lot of inappropriate smiling.
Gosling and Evans are both great, but they aren’t the only star characters: the set locations merit the title of supporting character. Of the entire $200 million budget, I’d be shocked if less than $125 million of that was dedicated to the location traveling and production design. More than seven diverse (though still Euro-centric) locations were used in principal photography, including Los Angeles, France, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Croatia, Austria, and Azerbaijan.
The globe-trotting is beautifully beguiling, even if the international locations were largely limited to one or two sets each. Personally, I found the opening location in Baku, Azerbaijan the most enravishing. Not only is Baku largely chaste material for Western blockbusters compared to Venice or Paris, but the big fight is in a firework pit! The beautiful cityscape backdrop finds itself littered with bright and colorful fireworks against a dark sky. It also enables (and capitalizes on) great potential for some fun new weapons: a firework fight.
The Gray Man
dir. Anthony and Joe Russo
Coming to Netflix Friday, 7/22