The city of Prague takes a real beating during the action centerpiece of The Gray Man, which filmed on location in the Czech capital last summer and debuts on Netflix today. Czech police are mowed down by bullets, cobblestones are sent flying, and a poor no. 11 tram is blown up and derailed during one of the finest action sequences you’ll see this year.
The Gray Man stars Ryan Gosling as Sierra Six – so named because 007 was taken, he jokes – a convict serving two decades in prison until he’s recruited by CIA agent Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) to come work as a titular agent: a disposable ghost trained by the government to carry out dangerous and morally questionable missions off the grid.
Twenty years after he’s recruited, Six finds himself in Bangkok and assigned to take out a target by slick new CIA honcho Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) before said target can sell off valuable government data. But when Six confronts the target (Callan Mulvey) after a firefight, he reveals himself to be Sierra Four… a betrayed agent with proof of CIA misdoings on a flash drive, which he hands off to Six.
Sensing the writing on the wall, Six refuses a rendezvous with Carmichael and high-tails it out of Bangkok with the help of Ftizroy, now a retired agent. Carmichael, meanwhile, hires ruthless private contractor Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to hunt down Six across the globe. To get the drop on Six, Hansen kidnaps both Fitzroy and his young niece (Julia Butters).
And that’s pretty much the extent of The Gray Man’s plot, which is disarmingly straightforward for this kind of thing: Six shows up somewhere, Hansen or his goons catch up with him, and an extended action sequence later he’s off to the next location.
Along the way, Gosling’s character joins forces with a legit CIA agent who senses her superiors are up to no good (played by Ana de Armas), meets up with a retired UK agency head who helps explain what’s on the flash drive (Alfre Woodard), gets double-crossed by a German document forger (Wagner Moura), confronts Carmichael’s right-hand woman (Jessica Henwick), and goes hand-to-hand with a lone wolf assassin (Dhanush).
There’s little reason to care about anything that goes on in The Gray Man, but the fast-paced storytelling from directors Joe and Anthony Russo (Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame) help distract us from the simplicity of the script. Still, one might wish this real-life spy movie took things more seriously than a comic book blockbuster; The Gray Man’s destructive action sequences seem to unfold without much consequence, while its characters never miss an opportunity to make a lighthearted quip.
The Gray Man’s star-studded cast also helps keep things afloat. Gosling’s effortless charisma keeps us invested in what might have otherwise been an underwritten role, and he develops a real rat-a-tat competitive rapport with Evans’ character; their climactic fight scene really pays off, until it suddenly doesn’t.
Evans, too, shines while playing against type as the ruthless Hansen, even though the character comes off as too one-note a psychopath: he’s too blandly evil to really hate. Dhanush’s skilled assassin with a moral compass is a much more interesting villain; unfortunately, he just walks out of the movie during the climax. And despite having far more to do here than in No Time to Die and in a similar role, Ana de Armas leaves much less of an impression; the script seems shy to give her any characterization at all.
But the real star of the show is Prague. The action of The Gray Man shifts from Bangkok to Chiang Mai to Baku, Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, but the Czech capital plays all of the aforementioned locations; local viewers will get a kick out of establishing shots featuring local landmarks that claim to come from various spots around the world. Kudos to the filmmakers, by the way, for those florid Evil Dead-like establishing shots shot from a drone, which capture large swaths of the city and shake things up from the usual.
Climactic scenes, set in a Croatian castle, were filmed at the Chateau de Chantilly near Paris, and a short sequence in rural Turkey looks like it was filmed in California; interiors, meanwhile, were largely shot in a Los Angeles studio.
While the opening scene in Bangkok and climactic action in Croatia take place in misty, murky night, all the Prague action occurs under the bright summer sun. An extended sequence set in the Czech capital features an exploding Žižkov apartment, a shootout in front of the Rudolfinum with Gosling’s character chained to a bench, and a runaway tram chase sequence that covers multiple city districts and sees Prague’s no. 11 riddled with bullets and even rockets. (See previous articles for more details on The Gray Man’s shooting locations in Prague).
This slam-bang sequence, largely accomplished using practical effects outside of shots of Prague architecture being smashed up to pieces, is beautifully choreographed and executed, and easily the film’s biggest highlight. It might also be the best use of Prague in a Hollywood blockbuster, and instantly renders The Gray Man a classic among movies shot in the Czech capital regardless of any storytelling flaws.
Promoted as Netflix’s most expensive movie to date, The Gray Man is undeniably polished and entirely engrossing, though like most of the streaming service’s offerings, it feels more like disposable entertainment than event cinema. Final scenes are particularly unsatisfying, setting up the potential for sequels rather than providing a fitting resolution for the events of this film. With Netflix facing some serious challenges this year, whether those sequels will come to fruition is yet to be seen.