Ryan Gosling will give Bond a run for his money in the most costly Netflix film ever made: BRIAN VINER reviews The Gray Man
The Gray Man (15, 122 mins)
Verdict: Colourful 007 rip-off
Persuasion (PG, 107 mins)
Verdict: Please don’t
The Railway Children Return (PG, 95 mins)
Verdict: On the right track
While we wait with ever-dwindling excitement to learn the identity of the next James Bond, Netflix have invested in a globetrotting assassin played by Ryan Gosling, in the hope — and let me apologise for using the F-word — that a 007-style franchise might follow.
The Gray Man is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who can consider themselves unlucky to be only the second-most famous brothers to come out of Ohio, behind the aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.
True, it’s only their imaginations that take flight, yet their joint credits include four Marvel blockbusters, not least the box-office behemoth Avengers: Endgame. They are said to trail only Steven Spielberg as the most commercially successful directors in cinematic history. Accordingly, The Gray Man is the most expensive Netflix film ever made, with a budget of around $200million. Happily it shows, with some stunts that are as thrillingly extravagant as they are implausibly silly. The Bond producers might have to raise their game.
All-action: Ryan Gosling as agent Six in Netflix’s The Gray Man, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Gosling holds up a weapon as he stars in the thriller based on a book by Mark Greaney
We first meet Gosling’s wise-cracking title character in a Florida jail, where he is serving a long sentence for murder. But a shadowy cove played by Billy Bob Thornton offers to have him released if he will agree to work for the CIA, with a licence to kill.
The story resumes 20 years later. As he pursues his latest target in a Bangkok nightclub you will not be amazed to learn that agent Six (Gosling) has proved himself a superstar in the covert liquidation business.
CLASSIC FILM ON TV
Now, Voyager (1942)
Veteran British star Claude Rains finished shooting his last scenes in this mighty romantic drama, led by Bette Davis, just a few hours before reporting for work on his next project, Casablanca. Those were the days.
Saturday, 3.25pm, BBC2
But wait. It transpires that his paymasters are not the paragons of morality that we all (that is to say, none of us) thought the CIA were. When Six figures this out, he finds himself in the crosshairs, hunted by a brilliant but sadistic rogue assassin played by Chris Evans (the macho American actor, not the chirpy British radio host).
The Russos and their screenwriters, adapting Mark Greaney’s novel, have sufficient fun with all this for at least some of it to rub off on the audience. They also rip off Bond shamelessly, even casting the lovely Ana de Armas as Six’s CIA accomplice, just as she was 007’s in last year’s No Time To Die. Oh, and the CIA commander and chief bad guy is played by Rege-Jean Page, the Bridgerton star tipped to be the next Bond.
Moreover, as in all the later Bond films, a kind of geographical incontinence settles over the story, a series of captions keeping us up to speed as the action whips round the globe like a rocket-fuelled Michael Palin: Bangkok, Berlin, Turkey, London, Hong Kong, Prague, Croatia, Washington DC. Do they think we’re idiots and are more likely to believe in the plot if it has a carbon footprint like a stegosaurus? The answer is yes.
Rail return: The Railway Children Return starring Sheridan Smith and Jenny Agutter
All that said, there is one stark difference between this and Bond. There’s not a hint of carnality in this movie. Six seems to be sexless. The only female to turn the alpha males to goo is a pretty child, Billy Bob Thornton’s niece, who, just to ramp up the poignancy, also has an iffy heart.
Again, I can imagine the Bond producers taking notes. Maybe it’s time to go gender neutral.
- Where would Jane Austen be without gender? It powers all her novels, along with social status, and the best adaptations respect this, even those that are brashly modernised such as the delightful Clueless (1995).
But another Netflix release, Persuasion, is clueless in all the wrong ways. The heroine of the novel, Anne Elliot, is meant to be a wan, sorrowful shadow of her former self, heartbroken that she was persuaded by her social-climbing godmother to spurn her one true love.
Well, Dakota Johnson as Anne, forever pinging arch glances at the camera, looks as wan and sorrowful as an Instagram influencer. Director Carrie Cracknell has crossed from the theatre to make her screen debut, which might be why her film, set in Regency England but peppered with smug anachronisms and all but doffing its topper to TV hits such as Bridgerton and Fleabag, plays so smirkingly to the audience.
The Railway Children Return is a much safer bet, even if it lacks the eternal charm of the original film, to which it is both a sequel — albeit set a couple of generations later, during the Second World — and an affectionate homage.
Bobbie (the evergreen Jenny Agutter) is now a grandma, strongly reminded of her Edwardian girlhood when she and her schoolteacher daughter (Sheridan Smith) take in three young siblings, working-class evacuees from Salford.
Adventures duly unfold against the same Yorkshire backdrop as the 1970 classic, and if director Morgan Matthews and writer Danny Brocklehurst sometimes nod a little obviously to modern sensibilities, they have still crafted a really enjoyable family film.
- The Gray Man, in cinemas now, is available on Netflix from next Friday. Longer reviews of Persuasion (on Netflix now) and The Railway Children Return (in cinemas) ran last week.
Netflix image shows Dakota Johnson in a scene from new Jane Austen adaptation Persuasion
(L to R) Lydia Rose Bewley as Penelope Clay, Richard E. Grant as Sir Walter Elliot, Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot, Yolanda Kettle as Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion.
Mac serves up an ace portrait
A fine documentary, McEnroe (****, 15, 104 mins) shows that last Sunday’s defeated men’s singles finalist at Wimbledon, Nick Kyrgios, behaved, even at his most furious, like an especially benign Buddhist monk by comparison with John Patrick McEnroe back in the day
In a former life as a sportswriter I had the pleasure of interviewing McEnroe and even playing a set with him once (against Pat Cash and the TV presenter John Inverdale, since you ask). I use the word ‘pleasure’ loosely.
He is revered these days as a wise elder statesman of tennis, yet charm is in just as short supply as it ever was. But that doesn’t stop him being absorbing company, as indeed he is in Barney Douglas’s excellent, probing film. Interspersed with arty shots of him walking through the streets of New York at night, McEnroe speaks with impressive candour about the demons that have driven him, touching on his cocaine habit and the implosion of his marriage to the actress Tatum O’Neal.
A close up of John McEnroe (USA) looking up and holding his racket to his chest at The Championships 1981
An advertisement for the McEnroe documentary
Adventurer Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes in Explorer
Contributors as wide-ranging as Bjorn Borg, Keith Richards and Chrissie Hynde also have their say, but perhaps the most insightful comments come from his second wife, the singer-songwriter Patty Smyth. ‘There is no one else on the planet like John,’ she says. ‘He is a strange bird.’
- Nor is there anyone else like the fearless and dogged adventurer Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes. Explorer (****, 12A, 113 mins) tells his compelling story, including my favourite detail: that he was booted out of the SAS after sabotaging production of the 1967 film Dr Dolittle. Enraged by Twentieth Century Fox’s ‘desecration’ of a Wiltshire trout stream to make room for the set, Fiennes tried to blow it up with stolen explosives.
Given that the movie was a famous flop, and nearly bankrupted Fox, it’s a shame he didn’t succeed.
Both documentaries are in cinemas from today [July 15].
Alison Boshoff is away