“Why do they call you Six?” asks the lonely preteen Claire Fitzroy (Julia Butters) of her new bodyguard/babysitter (Ryan Gosling), a CIA-trained assassin with ice-cold killing skills but, as it turns out, a warm heart. “Because 007 was taken,” he answers. In the context of The Gray Man, the line serves as more than a tossed-off pop-culture reference. Like the James Bond franchise, The Gray Man is based on a series of bestselling spy novels (in this case by Mark Greaney). But far from being “taken,” the James Bond scepter is in fact up for seizing at the moment, with that franchise having just reached the end of a cycle of films starring an actor who has been open for years about wishing his contract were up already. The Gray Man, directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, shows no such signs of weariness. It has the brash energy of a pretender to the throne.
The Russos are among the most financially successful directors in the world, thanks to their helming of several of the highest-grossing and best-received entries in the Avengers series: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame. Before their association with Marvel, the brothers, who got their start out of college making indie comedies before getting scouted by Steven Soderbergh, had already hit it big directing and producing episodes of sitcoms like Arrested Development, Community, and Happy Endings. It was around that time, in the late 2000s, that they first considered adapting one of Greaney’s “Gray Man” books for the screen. Now, with the money and clout they’ve earned from a decade at the top of the box-office food chain, they can stage an action spectacle at blockbuster scale. The Gray Man is the most expensive film Netflix has ever produced, with enough globe-hopping intrigue (Thailand, the Czech Republic, Berlin, Vienna, Azerbaijan) to make Jason Bourne look positively provincial. But it’s the brothers’ touch with comedy (they collaborated on the wisecrack-rich script with their former Marvel co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) that sets this hyper-violent, stylishly shot thriller apart from your average espionage-themed bone-cruncher.
Six’s real name is Court Gentry, a surprisingly suave-sounding moniker for a man who went to prison for murder at the age of 15. (The story of that killing is revealed in a late flashback, and without spoiling, I can say that the circumstances were mitigating.) In his early twenties, Gentry gets a conditional release from jail when he’s recruited by CIA operative Donald Fitzroy (an at first digitally de-aged Billy Bob Thornton) for a deep-undercover job carrying out the agency’s homicidal dirty work.
Eighteen years later, a battle-hardened Six finds himself tasked with eliminating a man who turns out to be one of his fellow specially trained black-ops agents. Before dying, the victim gives Six a thumb drive concealed in a gold pendant, an object that—as so often happens with thumb drives concealed in gold pendants—turns out to be the movie’s highly desirable MacGuffin. Everyone from the top brass at Langley wants to get their hands on this trinket for one reason or another, but the most ruthless villain in its pursuit is Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a former CIA agent who served for only a few months before getting fired for his penchant for torture and lack of impulse control.
These qualities—gleeful sadism and a proud absence of scruples—are precisely what make Lloyd an exceptional mercenary. He runs an international crime ring out of a Croatian castle complete with moat, an organization that’s willing to do things most spy agencies at least pretend to be too principled for.* Once Lloyd sets his sights on the coveted thumb drive, those things will include kidnapping Agent Fitzroy’s 12-year-old niece (Butters) and torturing Fitzroy himself in an attempt to locate the elusive Six.
The Gray Man‘s fast-moving plot churns through many more characters: Ana de Armas as an ambitious young spy torn between helping Six survive and keeping her job. Alfre Woodard as a seen-it-all retired agent with nothing left to lose. Regé-Jean Page as a crooked CIA bureaucrat hiding his corruption behind a mask of bland professionalism. The South Indian actor-singer-director Dhanush as a Tamil super-assassin hired to take Six down. But as the movie hurtles toward its final scenes, it becomes an almost mythic showdown between the sociopathic Lloyd and the grimly competent Six, and a showcase for the movie stars playing them.
Evans seems energized by the chance to trade his do-gooder Captain America persona for a Playgirl-ready mustache, clingy polo shirts, fancy low-vamp loafers, and a cruel, wheedling sense of humor. Lloyd is a psycho who openly revels in his own psychopathy, and the audience at my screening all but squealed in delight at his every nasty putdown. As the standup-guy assassin whom Lloyd mocks as a “Ken doll”—no doubt a reference to the fact Gosling will play exactly that in Greta Gerwig’s upcoming live-action Barbie movie—Gosling is more conventionally cast, but he too seems thrilled to be there, and he sells every one of the countless fight scenes. The climactic set piece in Prague begins with a spectacular shootout during which Six, handcuffed to a bench in a public park, still somehow manages to take out an entire team of armed men sent to kill him. That sequence, along with an ensuing battle at the Croatian castle, stages mayhem on a lunatic scale, with a visual style to match. In the runup to big fight scenes, the camera often races across great distances at ground level, as if to hurl the viewer’s eye directly into the fray.
The Gray Man’s record-breaking $200 million budget, along with an ending that leaves at least one character arc to be completed, makes it seem likely the streamer is planning for a sequel and may be setting up a new franchise. In this age of shameless IP-milking, I suppose that should be the occasion for a cynical sigh, but I confess that the notion of more Gray Men to come has me hyped, especially if the Russos can keep coming up with villains as over-the-top as the thrillingly loathsome Lloyd. Perhaps they can go through the former Avengers one at a time, giving them each the chance to play against type as a super-asshole.
Correction, July 25, 2022: This article originally misstated that Lloyd’s castle is in the Czech Republic. It’s in Croatia.