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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
The Netflix movie "The Gray Man" stars Ryan Gosling as a prison inmate who strikes a deal to become an assassin for the CIA in exchange for his freedom. When a mission goes awry, he has to contend with a sociopathic ex-agent played by a very game Chris Evans.
LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
The movie is like a lot of spy thrillers. The CIA is involved. There are shadow governments, plus flashy action sequences set in places like Bangkok and Prague. This time, though, they're filtered through the sensibilities of directors Anthony and Joe Russo. I'm Linda Holmes.
HARRIS: And I'm Aisha Harris. And today, we're talking about "The Gray Man" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HARRIS: Here with me and Linda today is writer Chris Klimek. Welcome back, Chris.
CHRIS KLIMEK, BYLINE: Oh, Linda, Aisha, it is such a genuine mustache to mustache with you both again.
HARRIS: Yes. We will be talking about Chris Evans' mustache, I am sure.
HOLMES: Oh, heavens.
HARRIS: But first - so in "The Gray Man," Ryan Gosling plays Six, a convicted murderer turned assassin for the CIA's Sierra program. While on a mission in Bangkok, he discovers the intended target is actually a fellow Sierra agent. Right before dying, the target gives Six a pendant containing damning evidence of corruption against their boss, Denny Carmichael, who's played by Rege-Jean Page. Six sets out on his own. And Carmichael hires Lloyd Hansen, a sadistic ex-CIA agent played by Chris Evans, to take down Six and retrieve the pendant.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Donald Fitzroy, a CIA officer and father figure in Six's life. And Julia Butters plays Claire, who's Fitzroy's young niece. The movie also features Ana de Armas as agent Dani Miranda and Alfre Woodard as Six's one-time handler, Margaret Cahill. The Russo brothers directed the film, and they also directed the Captain America and Avengers movies for Marvel. "The Gray Man" is also reportedly the most expensive Netflix movie ever made. So Linda, I know you wrote a review of "The Gray Man." And so I have a sense of what your thoughts are. But tell us more. How do you feel about "The Gray Man"?
HOLMES: I have very complicated feelings about The Grey Man, which is funny because it's not a complicated movie.
HARRIS: (Laughter) No.
HOLMES: I really felt like I think the Russos have become good directors of action. I like the action sequences here. I think they're fun. I also think they have a really nice flair for comedy. And the charisma of these two actors, Gosling and Chris Evans, really works well in these roles. I would watch these guys sort of have moments in these roles for a long time. But at the same time, I felt so incredibly left cold by the fundamental movie itself.
And I think part of what happened - and I wrote a bit about this in the review. But these groups, like this Sierra project and everything, which is very kind of analogous to, like, the Impossible Mission Force and the people who work with James Bond. It's all very, like, off-the-books. Like, there are things we can't officially do that it's wonderful to unofficially do. And I always have mixed feelings about that. For one thing, you got to start figuring out, when you are in one of those forces, eventually, they're going to turn on you, right...
HOLMES: ...Because that's one of the stories every single time. They turn on James Bond. They turn on Tom Cruise. And in this...
HOLMES: ...They turn on Ryan Gosling.
KLIMEK: By my count, there is one of the extent six "Missions: Impossible" movies, not the TV show, where Tom Cruise does not go rogue.
HOLMES: Right. Exactly.
HOLMES: To me, this one fell a little bit too much into the category of hired killers, who all just kind of do whatever people tell them to do, fighting and trying to kill each other first. And despite the fact that there are some set pieces here I really, really enjoyed - there's one that makes very good use of window reflections that I enjoyed a lot. There's also a really terrific and fun sequence involving handcuffs and a bench, which I thought was really nicely executed. And it's one of those things where you're like, oh, OK. I see what they're doing, but it's still really fun.
But the only time when these people seemed like people to me was when Gosling has, like, a very short scene with Alfre Woodard. That's when I felt like a person was there. The relationship between him and Billy Bob Thornton, who's sort of his original recruiter and has been his mentor, didn't register for me at all. The effort to kind of bring in his niece as this sort of vulnerable person that Ryan Gosling has to protect didn't work for me at all. I just wanted it to be about something, even if it was good guys and bad guys. Like, they just all seemed like kind of bad guys.
HOLMES: And I said this in the review. I think, with the Evans character, they're going for Hans Gruber. They're going for, like, the really bad guy who is funny and clever enough and competent enough that you almost root for him a little bit. But I don't think that comes off in this. I don't think they find the right way into that. And also, like, what are the stakes for Ryan Gosling, like, just killing this other guy before the guy kills him? I enjoyed it when I was watching it. And then I felt like it was cotton candy. And it was completely gone instantly. It's like - if you've ever seen the video of, like, the raccoon trying to, like, wash cotton candy in the water, and it just dissolves while he's trying to wash it...
HOLMES: ...That's how I felt about this.
HARRIS: Yeah. I have a feeling that after we record this episode, I will probably forget about this movie.
HARRIS: But that - maybe I'm showing my hand a little early. Chris, how do you feel about "The Gray Man"?
KLIMEK: You know, well, I've always been grossed out by cotton candy.
KLIMEK: And I'm not angry. I'm just disappointed because when I look at the writers, the directors, the cast of this movie, it is a murderer's row - pun intended, I guess - of people who have been involved with many of my favorite films of the last decade. And this one is just giving me nothing. I will tell, for the listener, the reason my Zoom backdrop today is a still of Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill staring at each other angrily from the last "Mission: Impossible" because, one, I feel like that is a fairly obvious template for this movie. Oh, you liked it when we put a mustache on Superman and made him a bad guy? We're going to put a mustache on Captain America and make him a bad guy.
KLIMEK: But in "Mission: Impossible" - and this is a series where, you know, I have lamented sort of the thinness of the characters in the past. But what it gives you in lieu of deep characters is process. We are going to explain in great detail how we're going to carry out the mission and then let you have the pleasure of seeing, you know, something go wrong, and then the way we have to improvise. And we're going to intercut between the mission briefing and the actual execution of the mission. So in the absence of something to give you an emotional investment in character, it sort of relies on your investment in process, in how-to.
And this film, "The Gray Man," gives us neither of those things - right? - because the character relationships are thin. But there's also no spycraft in this movie. There's no tradecraft. Like, Ryan Gosling's special skill is, here, take this special rifle that we have already deposited in the location where we want you to assassinate this person for you, and then shoot this guy, which - it seems like a lot of people could do that. You would not need a highly specific set of skills to do this. It also seems like the moral crisis that gets the movie going, which is - I'll just spoil it - he doesn't want to take the shot while there's a kid who could be hit. This is the first time in 20 years that you've been in a situation like? - this to have, like, Ryan Gosling, who is a guy who I think has really good taste, who tends to make movies that I love that don't make money. You know, I love "The Nice Guys." I love "Blade Runner 2049" - so cool.
HARRIS: "Nice Guys," yes.
KLIMEK: To see him and Ana de Armas, where - they actually have more to do together in "Blade Runner" than they do in this - Chris Evans, who is such a great heel in "Knives Out," right? - a much more boring heel in this movie. I hate to return to one of my old punching bags, but this reminds me of "Fast And The Furious" so much, in that every single thing that happens, I'm like, this is where they took that from, and that movie did it better. Like, this is the less imaginative, less specific version of that thing from that other movie that you liked - you know? - bringing Julia Butters in. After "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," I was like, wow, this is the best child actor I've ever seen. I can't wait to see what she does next. Well, she does kind of a boring, you know, sort of hostage - she's supposed to be our emotional anchor into this story by giving her sort of a relationship with Ryan Gosling. But it just doesn't really come off.
No one is playing to their strengths here, trying to - like, Gosling is at his best in these kinds of films when he's almost an action hero, like in "Drive" or the bit Linda mentioned with the - handcuffed to the bench, where he gets to do some of the physical comedy that he did so well in "The Nice Guys." You know, there's a scene in there where Russell Crowe is intimidating him in a bathroom stall, and he's trying to point a gun at him and pull his pants up at the same time. And he's such a great physical comedian that you're just laughing through the whole scene - nothing like that here. No one is playing to their strengths. I'm just so disappointed.
HARRIS: Yeah. To that point, I think, I second and third pretty much everything both of you have said. And for me, what it really came down to, stripping away all of the things that this movie doesn't do quite well, I do think for me, the Chris Evans performance was the best part. And I actually think he was playing to his strengths. And I think he was just completely in a different movie from everyone else. I thought he was very funny. Like, this is a Russo brothers movie, so there's going to be jokes. But I feel like he was the only one who really had the good jokes in this film. There's some running gags and some typical lines that come back and are returned to later on. And it's, like, ah, remember when we mentioned that before? But that handcuff scene especially is great, I think, because the Chris Evans character is simultaneously, like, watching it all go down, and he's like, how can you not hit this guy (laughter)? It's, like - the way he delivers that line - I was like, this is great. I want more of that.
HARRIS: For me, Ryan Gosling - I agree with you, Chris, that, you know, he in "The Nice Guys" is so, so good at mixing that comedy and that action. And I feel like for, I don't know, 75%, 80% of this movie, he's just playing it really, really straight and kind of robotic. And I know he's supposed to be the sort of stoic, I am this assassin, and I have no family other than Billy Bob Thornton, and this is what I do, and I just do what I'm told. But I wanted more from him. And I feel like he was not giving what he was supposed to be giving. And when he did shine, it was when he was, like, mildly irked and annoyed, which happened several times. And I think that's also another part that's kind of funny. It could have been funnier, but, like...
HARRIS: Him and the Ana de Armas character are often kind of going back and forth, and he gets annoyed by situations. And I think he does that really, really well.
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ANA DE ARMAS: (As Dani Miranda) You gave me an empty gun.
RYAN GOSLING: (As Six) The shells were coming, OK?
DE ARMAS: (As Dani Miranda) Huh?
GOSLING: (As Six) The shells were coming. You ran away too fast.
DE ARMAS: (As Dani Miranda) Then you need to say, hey, wait, that's empty.
GOSLING: (As Six) It's assumed.
DE ARMAS: (As Dani Miranda) I assumed it's loaded, so I run after the guy.
GOSLING: (As Six) Who throws a loaded gun?
DE ARMAS: (As Dani Miranda) I asked for a loaded gun.
GOSLING: (As Six) No one throws a loaded weapon, OK? Are you coming?
HARRIS: For me overall, if he's going to be the main character, I need something a little bit more interesting than just, like, yeah, I'm this stoic guy, and I do what I'm told.
HARRIS: And I think that's the issue...
HARRIS: ...One of the issues. I also think the action set pieces - the handcuff one is great. But the one where he's in a plane and he's falling - to me, that was so terribly shot.
HARRIS: Like, it was sort of chaotic and blurry...
HARRIS: ...And had that sort of video game - and not like a good video game - like, video game blur to it...
HARRIS: ...Where you couldn't really see things happening. And the colors mixed together.
KLIMEK: Well, and that sequence suffers particularly because there is a sequence just like that in "Mission: Impossible - Fallout," where they actually had, you know, a cameraman holding an IMAX camera falling backwards, holding Tom Cruise in frame.
HARRIS: Right. Right.
KLIMEK: I mean, it's one of the most amazing movie stunts ever when you do it without digital animation, you know?
KLIMEK: And so it really suffers by comparison to that.
HOLMES: Yeah. Chris, you know that you and I have long disagreed about "The Fast and the Furious," right?
KLIMEK: Yes. I do.
HARRIS: I also disagree with Chris on that.
HOLMES: But I will say this. To me, one of the essential facts of that franchise is ongoing relationships, right? The whole stuff - all the stuff about like family and everything - sure, it's goofy. But it exists. And you have these kind of, like - these are the old resentments. This is the history. This is why this guy used to be friends with that guy, and now they're not friends anymore.
KLIMEK: This is why this guy who killed my best friend in the last movie is now my best friend in this movie.
KLIMEK: Yes, yes.
HOLMES: Yes. Of course. Yes. But those things exist, right? I wanted there to be, like, some history, resentment. Like, have some of these people had sex with each other? Like, what is the story? And you get, like, the tiniest inkling of it at the very end. There's a little bit of that about, like, some side characters, basically, but, like, not the main people. Like, there are no relationships to hang it on. And the other thing I would say is, when you talk about the set pieces - one of the reasons I find this disappointing is that I find that the discourse about the Russo brothers can get very focused on, like, that they are Marvel, Marvel, Marvel guys.
And it's not that they're not, because they obviously are Marvel guys. But they came out of, before that, working on "Community" and "Arrested Development." And so the fact that they are stylish directors is something that I think sometimes gets lost in the, like, well, these are just guys who do cookie-cutter Marvel whatever. Like, they know how to do things that are stylish and interesting. And you can see them trying to do things that are stylish and interesting. I think the flair for comedy is where you get sort of that. We keep talking about this handcuff on the bench thing.
HARRIS: I mean, it's the best part.
HOLMES: I think it's an effort to kind of blend the comedy and the action and to have a style and to do something you haven't seen before.
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CHRIS EVANS: (As Lloyd Hansen) Would someone mind shooting the man handcuffed to the bench?
HOLMES: But I think it's reductive to sort of assume that they're not capable of more than this, which is part of why I find this, which is just, to me, a lot of fun action. And again, I enjoyed this movie while I was watching it, but I want people to bother to put characters into movies because even in stuff like "The Fast And The Furious," even in stuff like James Bond, that are focused on action and spycraft and things like that, you can create stakes that involve people's humanity.
KLIMEK: In the Daniel Craig Bond series, like, the warmest relationship in those movies is between him and Judi Dench. And that's what I was thinking of when we get Alfre Woodard for just, you know, I think two very effective, short scenes. She's wonderful.
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GOSLING: (As Six) You did say you were going to quit.
ALFRE WOODARD: (As Maurice Cahill) It was a life of few places. I clung to the ones I had.
DE ARMAS: (As Dani Miranda) Was?
WOODARD: (As Maurice Cahill) Three months, optimistic. If you utter anything remotely sympathetic, I will shoot you.
KLIMEK: That was another thing where I was like, oh, yeah, I - like taking this piece from this other movie and putting it into my collage over here. I think it is telling that we all like the handcuff bit so much, which is definitely the kind of thing you could have done working on a television budget, right? There's all this ballyhoo about this is the most expensive Netflix movie yet, yada, yada, yada. And we took these Russos who, you know, were working in "Community," working in television, where you have to be very innovative and solve problems and work quickly, and then gave them the biggest budgets, you know, ever approved for movies to make these four Marvel movies. I think I would have liked this movie four times as much if it was made on one-fourth the budget, you know...
KLIMEK: ...And they had to be a little scrappier.
KLIMEK: And, you know, because it sounds like the most expensive pieces of this are the ones that we cared about the least, right? That airplane sequence, terrible.
HARRIS: Yeah. To me, it also just comes back to the issue that I've had with so many movies these days, which is that so much of it does look like it's done on a green screen or it looks like it's been...
HARRIS: ...Edited this way and taken through a sifter and just turned it into this very bland-looking animated piece that it shouldn't look like. I mean, we did an episode on Michael Bay's "Ambulance," which, like, I am not going to say is a good movie by any means. And I also found it kind of grating in some ways. But what I did appreciate about it was it was very heavily reliant, mostly, on practical effects. When you hold something up like that up next to something like this - you know, there's a final, like, showdown between the Chris Evans character and the Ryan Gosling character - and that showdown is supposed to be done, like, at night, and then the sun is rising.
KLIMEK: It's like the sun rises, like, 45 minutes during the 30 seconds that they're trading punches with each other...
HARRIS: Very quickly.
KLIMEK: ...Which is in the hedge maze from "The Shining," by the way. OK.
HARRIS: Yes, in a hedge maze.
HOLMES: But that is a really weird shot. Like, it's funny that...
HARRIS: It's so weird.
HOLMES: ...You guys both mentioned that because when I saw that, I was like, wait, is it morning? What is happening?
HARRIS: Yeah, it goes from night to morning very quickly.
HOLMES: Is it the North Pole?
KLIMEK: I honestly wondered if that was supposed to be, like, a timelapse thing or just, like, this fight lasted 90 minutes.
HARRIS: I don't think they really thought about it. I think they were just like, at this point in time, we want the sun to start rising, and then we're going to make it happen.
KLIMEK: And we have enough money to make the sun rise when we want it to.
HARRIS: Right. Because even then, the sun - like, it doesn't look real. It looks like they're...
HARRIS: ...These two human characters are in front of a impressionist painting or something.
HARRIS: Like, they're like plastered into it, and I hate that look. It just...
KLIMEK: But that sort of manipulation of the natural environment, like that seems to me like that might be appropriate to a superhero movie, which is what this is not.
KLIMEK: This is ostensibly a spy movie, an assassin movie. I mean, yes, these people have incredible ability to absorb injury and keep living and functioning, but nobody is actually flying or shooting rays out of their eyes or anything here. That just seemed like a superhero moment in a movie that was supposed to be more grounded, that they actually said in their own press, this is more of a, you know, '70s spy thriller of the kind that we used to like. And I think "Captain America: Winter Soldier," their first Marvel movie, is much more that...
HOLMES: Oh, yeah.
KLIMEK: ...Than this is.
HARRIS: I was not getting '70s spy thriller from this.
KLIMEK: No, no.
HOLMES: Not from this, no.
HARRIS: I was getting maybe, like, Jean-Claude Van Damme '90s action...
HARRIS: ...Thriller, but like yeah.
HOLMES: It's funny because I've interviewed those guys a few times - the Russos - and they - I think they are smart guys, and I've enjoyed talking to them about choices because they do make choices in thoughtful ways. And I think it's almost like it's unfair to them not to hold this movie to a higher standard than I think you have to hold it to to be like, this is fine.
HOLMES: Because this, I mean, among other things, you've really got some, I think, wasted actors here. I love Ana de Armas. I think she's good in this but doesn't get to do very much.
KLIMEK: But she doesn't pop the way she did in "No Time To Die," right? Remember, like, her 15 minutes in "No Time To Die?" Everybody was like, oh, my God, bring her back. This movie is so much more fun than it was a moment ago.
KLIMEK: She doesn't pop like that here. Yeah.
HOLMES: And at the same time, I think even Rege-Jean Page, who comes in here and is like, boy, if you thought he could really wear the period clothes in "Bridgerton," I will tell you he can also really wear a suit and glasses.
KLIMEK: Yeah, but do you buy him as, like, a national security functionary?
HOLMES: I did.
KLIMEK: Really? He just looks like a male model. He looks - I mean, he's great-looking, but I don't believe him at all.
HARRIS: That's not a negative, Chris.
HOLMES: I believe him as a kind of a early-to-mid-career, ambitious sort of dude in the national security apparatus. Yes, I absolutely do.
KLIMEK: He needs to have coffee stains on his shirt. He needs to look like a slob, that character, I think.
HOLMES: I'll tell you what it is. I feel like this is a movie that I almost love. And I can see a movie that I could have loved kind of lurking around the edges of this movie. And this was not a movie I loved.
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HARRIS: Well, we want to know what you think about "The Gray Man." Maybe you liked it more than us, or maybe you have other thoughts. So find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Chris Klimek, Linda Holmes, thanks to you both for being here and helping me talk out my feelings about "The Gray Man."
KLIMEK: Thank you.
HOLMES: Thank you, friend.
HARRIS: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Candice Lim and Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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