The gray man
Did you know that the Russo brothers are the second most commercially successful film directors after Steven Spielberg?
Me neither, but the mystery of how two brothers you’ve probably never heard of became such dominant market forces is solved when you realize they make Marvel images.
One of them, Avengers: Endgamegrossed nearly $3 billion worldwide, which will give you an idea of the numbers we’re dealing with.
But the Russos, in all honesty, aren’t resting on their laurels and have left the Marvel franchise behind to embrace the brave new world of streaming productions.
Joe and Anthony Russo have several irons in the fire with Amazon Prime, Disney and Universal, but it’s Netflix that’s backing this action-thriller which, it must be said, lightly bumps its $200 million budget.
Based on a novel by Mark Greaney and co-written by Joe Russo and his regular Marvel collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, The gray man opens in a prison interrogation room, where veteran CIA handler Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) engages with a man who is clearly considered a dangerous criminal.
Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling) is a lifer, murderer, but Fitzroy seems to have some sympathy for his situation and offers him a one-time deal – he can get out of jail now if he agrees to become an off in return – the-books CIA assassin.
Kind of obvious when you think about it and Gentry, under its new codename Sierra Six, is quickly becoming the best in the business, taking down baddies across the globe without even breaking a sweat.
But when he’s sent to Bangkok to eliminate a would-be terrorist, the dying man reveals he too was a CIA killer and someone higher up is trying to suppress evidence of wrongdoing.
That would be Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), an unprincipled maniac responsible for all manner of mayhem, now covering his tracks.
But the dying assassin has given Six a file containing damning evidence of all of Hansen’s crimes, and so a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues.
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In the corner of Six is Fitzroy, who will withstand all sorts of inconveniences. But Hansen, a psychopath with a bad mustache, has kidnapped Fitzroy’s beloved niece and will now hold them both for ransom.
Six, meanwhile, has become acquainted with Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), a resourceful CIA agent who realizes what Hansen is up to and decides to help Six stop him.
The gray man is Bourne with a nod to Bond, part shoot-em-up video game, but part comedy — that last ingredient crucial to its success.
A decision was made to take it easy on the violence and breathe some air into a sparkly storyline. Six appears to be emotionally catatonic, but that doesn’t stop Gosling from delivering caustic one-liners with a straight face.
And Evans is downright hilarious as the cheerfully evil Hansen. He laughs at those who seem offended by his excesses, but his Achilles heel is a desire to be taken seriously, a task made more difficult by a funny banana, that dodgy mustache and an unfortunate tendency to wear loafers. without socks.
Hansen has a bad habit of insisting on himself and acting like a toddler when things don’t go his way. We already knew Evans could do comedy, thanks to this winning trick Knives outbut he really does look great here, even managing to make his character’s lameness look funny.
The action sequences deliberately sail beyond the shores of believability and too often resort to flashy CG, but the exotic locations are skillfully used and The gray man is a film that never makes the mistake of taking itself seriously.
It would have been nice if the character played by De Armas had had a little more history, and Julia Butters, who plays Fitzroy’s niece, is excellent but underused.
The gray man is a lot of fun, though, and well worth seeing in a theater ahead of its impending streaming release.
Rating: three stars
The Return of the Railway Children
(PG, 98 mins)
Much loved, but not by me, the 1970 film by Lionel Jeffries Railway children was a staple of British television in the 1970s and 80s and had a certain naive charm to it.
Exiled to Yorkshire following the disgrace of their diplomat father, a trio of Boer War-era children led by Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) perform heroic deeds near railway tracks and bond friendship with the locals.
Agutter returns as the much older, twisted Bobbie in this lovable sequel set during World War II.
Sent to Yorkshire by their mother to escape the Luftwaffe’s assault on Manchester, Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby) struggle to fit in, especially at school.
But Lily and her companions find purpose when they discover an injured African-American soldier (Kenneth Aikens) hiding in an abandoned railroad car.
The Return of the Railway Children is deliberately retro and may confuse young moviegoers accustomed to faster editing and more action. But the young actors are engaging, and older viewers might find solace in its easy pacing and moral certainties.
Rating: three stars
The good boss
Although his expertise is rarely called upon, Javier Bardem is an excellent comedic actor, and he is at his best in the sharp and elegant satire of Fernando León de Aranoa.
At first sight, Julio Blanco (Bardem) is a good boss, the suave and affable general manager of a busy factory that manufactures industrial ladders.
He regularly addresses his workers, praising their efforts and urging them to reach even greater heights as the company is now in the running for a prestigious industry award.
But all is not as it seems, as Julio is the kind of bloodless corporate cutthroat that would make Machiavelli blush, happy to use his second-in-command’s marital difficulties to undermine him, and even happier to go after every long-legged trainee introducing himself.
The last of them, however, will be more than a game for him, as Liliana (Almudena Amor) is just as ruthless as Julio.
Add in a one-man strike that threatens to thwart his bid for that award and you’ve got a boss on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Thanks in large part to Bardem, Julio’s slow implosion is a lot of fun.