Review – Spy vs Spy vs Spy (“The Gray Man”)

Based on the series of novels by Mark Greaney, the Russo Brothers (of MCU fame) have decided they want to make this new character their next big project and have already planned a sequel! Now, that’s reaching for the stars!

Yes, you’ve often seen this over-used, clichéd trope many times before in both the Jason Bourne & John Wick franchises: a highly skilled assassin wants out, so his people (or company) sends other assassins after him to take him out. So why is this cut ‘n’ paste film so good? We start with the very basics of stories; an imprisoned man is recruited by the CIA to be an undercover covert assassin until he’s no longer useful. This incredibly skilled and unbelievably unkillable man is Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling), but he goes by the code name Sierra Six. Like in The Bourne Identity, Six discovers that his latest target, another Sierra spy, has damning information about the CIA and the people Six is working for.

Armed with a McGuffin. . . sorry, I mean an encrypted flash drive, Six sets out to stop Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page), the arrogant and sinister CIA director and his number one, Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick). The only one on Six’s side is his old handler, Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) and his tween daughter, Claire (Julia Butters), who has a heart condition. The CIA assigns agent Dani Miranda (Ana De Armas) to bring in Six, but after she learns of his McGuffin. . . I mean, that flash drive and all the incriminating stuff on it, she switches sides. Not to mention she’s now a target, too!

This is where Denny opens Pandora’s Box and allows CIA psychopathic killer, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to hunt Six and that flash drive down. Hansen is remorseless, loves killing, talks trash, and is relentless like Six. As Six globetrots all over the world with Dani, trying to escape Lloyd and his vicious team of killers, he is also attempting to get that drive to the right people AND rescue Donald & Claire who have been taken hostage! Sure, you’ve seen this movie before, but not with the team behind the most profitable films of all time!

Screenwriters Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Joe Russo, who brought us the MCU’s Avenger movies, concoct a whiz-bang spy thriller with enough action & adventure to fill two movies. The set pieces are incredible and eye-popping, especially the amazing third-act train ride in downtown Prague that has to be seen to be believed. It’s John Wick with Six’s inventive ways of offing people on the fly, and it’s Jason Bourne as he’s the lone wolf trying to clear his name by bringing down his agency. Gosling is spectacular as the thinking man’s assassin (like Bourne) instead of a blunt instrument like Wick. He’s also vulnerable and has sympathy for others, as you can see with Julia Butters, who shines in her small role. Armas, who was such a standout in No Time To Die, gets more screen time here and is terrific. 

Most of the dialogue is delivered in short quips, like an old 50’s noir, with some exceptions. Chris Evans is thoroughly detestable (but in a good way) as the unfiltered Lloyd; a welcome departure from his usual squeaky clean screen persona. Look for a wonderful short cameo by Alfre Woodward as Six’s old CIA friend and Billy Bob Thornton is always great. The man to watch here is British actor Rege-Jean Page as the stone-faced Denny. He is evil personified and is as slick as oil when confronted. As I said, this movie is a cookie-cutter, paint-by-the-numbers spy thriller that you’ve seen before, but this time the Russo Brothers have upped the ante and turned it into a roller coaster ride. Check it out!

**Now streaming on Netflix and showing in selected theaters  

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

If you were around in the 60’s (like yours truly), you’ll remember this popular TV series about a secret clandestine law-enforcement agency called United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, which ran from 1964 to 1968. Even James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, came on board to create some of the elements of the show. Pretty cool, huh? It was so popular it spawned a TV spin-off, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

Playing out like a TV episode, we are introduced to Superman and The Lone Ranger. . . sorry, I mean Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as the two super-spies who are forced to work with each other. It’s 1963 and in walled-up East Berlin, American spy and master thief Napoleon Solo (Cavill) has to rescue Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), an auto mechanic whose dad is a nuclear physicist that’s been kidnapped to create an atomic bomb. But getting her over the wall to anti-communist West Berlin is impeded by a boorish Soviet spy, Illya Kuryakin (Hammer).

Once out after a harrowing escape, the two not-so-friendly men must join forces, after they are recruited by their bosses to take Gaby to Rome, Italy. There, Gaby and Illya pose as a couple to fool Gaby’s uncle into locating her sequestered father. It seems that her dad’s been taken by a crazy Contessa named Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) and her evil hubby, Alexander (Luca Calvani). But finding that bomb and the computer disc plans are a priority, so the guys try and locate it while the Contessa speeds up her plans to arm the bomb.

But wouldn’t ya know it? Both Solo and Kuryakin have the rug pulled out from under them just as Gaby is about to meet her papa, when she pulls a double-cross! The guys are in hot water as they scramble to stay alive. Under the guidance of a new boss, Mr. Waverly (Hugh Grant), they’re informed that Gaby is, in fact, a British spy and that the double-cross was all part of an elaborate ruse. Geez, ya just can’t trust anyone nowadays!

Finally, it’s a race to the finish throughout the beautiful Roman hills and waters of Sicily to stop the Contessa from making off with the device as Solo, Teller, and Kuryakin join together to stop her. Yup, these three form the basis for U.N.C.L.E. and leave the story wide open for a sequel.

Director Guy Ritchie, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Lionel Wigram, really takes his time in telling the story with all sorts of backstories, side plots, and several call-backs. Problem is, in doing this, you get a slow-paced story that drags the tempo down. Couple that with a remedial plot and you get a movie that is just so-so. I did enjoy Ritchie’s direction, which is unique and stylized, but the script was only intermittently entertaining and generally misfires as it tries to be a mash-up of Mission: Impossible meets James Bond.

You do have an eclectic soundtrack that is all 60’s jazz with Italian soul, along with some breathtaking on-location Roman landscape, so that’s a plus. All the costuming, cars, and gadgets are very cool and retro, but let’s face it, that’ll only divert you for a while. Both Cavill and Hammer are very good as frenemies and play off each other well, while Vikander, who was so incredible in Ex Machina, is given a thankless role here as a damsel in distress.

One thought on “Review – Spy vs Spy vs Spy (“The Gray Man”)

  1. Reviews of The Gray Man are mixed but if you liked the fast and furious pace of Bill Fairclough’s epic fact based spy novel Beyond Enkription in The Burlington Files series then you will love Anthony Russo’s The Gray Man and vice versa. They both make parts of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series look like slow horses! The Gray Man is about a renegade CIA agent on the run and stars Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans; it’s based on Mark Greaney’s debut novel of the same name. Fairclough’s factual stand-alone thriller Beyond Enkription is about a (real life) MI6 agent on the run from international organised crime gangs and Haiti’s TonTon Macoute from London to Nassau and Port au Prince to Miami. The Gray Man and The Burlington Files are both musts for espionage aficionados. The difference between them is that The Burlington Files series has mainly had five star reviews, it’s factual, full of real characters and was written for espionage cognoscenti.

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