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CALLERI: ‘Gray Man’ books are now a globe-trotting movie | lifestyles

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It’s spy versus spy in “The Gray Man,” the latest film that’s causing people to ask: what is Netflix doing?

I am a fan of the streaming platform, and my major complaints are that it needs a better way to showcase the thousands of movies and shows it delivers, as well as infinitely better subtitles for its foreign offerings and for subscribers who need closed-captioning for its features and specials.

However, Netflix continues to do something that I consider absurd. It contains most of its original films from theaters, which to me seems silly. Netflix has hundreds of millions of customers, and it strikes me that showing some of its movies in theaters before they premiere on the service would be a good marketing tool. It already has a built-in audience. Why not take advantage of the publicity generated from a theatrical release?

Running a film in theaters also creates income, which, based on its latest negative financial news, would seemingly benefit Netflix. Some of its movies do play theaters, albeit briefly, especially during awards season.

Take “The Gray Man,” for example. I am a major fan of author Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series of novels. I have read all 11 of the books, including this year’s “Sierra Six.” The main character is Courtland Gentry, who is a freelance assassin, and a former member of the CIA’s Special Activity Division. Basically, he’s a special paramilitary operations officer with no “jacket” (information), about whom the CIA has complete deniability.

The first book in the series is titled “The Gray Man” and last week the film opened in only about 500 movie theaters, mostly those in the Cinemark and Marcus chains. The Regal and AMC companies were essentially shut out. why? You’d have to ask Netflix.

Here’s the problem. “The Gray Man” arrived with the promise that it was going to be bona fide, big screen action entertainment. However, hardly anyone in the country could see it in a theater, metro Buffalo-Niagara moviegoers included. The release pattern made no sense. “The Gray Man” cost Netflix $200 million to produce. Wouldn’t it be smart to get some theatrical income nationwide to help cover costs by opening it in many more theaters?

Because of my enjoyment of Greaney’s writing and the unique nature of his Court Gentry character, I really wanted to see the movie in a theater, and fortunately there’s a Cinemark Tinseltown USA in nearby Rochester’s southwest suburbs. Therefore, this past Monday, I drove on a rainy afternoon to Rochester to see the film, which is now streaming on Netflix.

The filmmaking brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo are especially noted for “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame.” These gentlemen are all about cinematic spectacle, and I thoroughly believe that spectacle should be seen on a big screen. Oddly, the Russos have generated controversy by stating that movie theaters are outmoded and anachronistic.

“The Gray Man” has spectacle, but what it doesn’t have is Court Gentry as envisioned by Mark Greaney. In fact, what’s delivered by the Russos is a cartoonish misfire.

Gentry (a badly miscast Ryan Gosling) needs to be properly introduced to audiences, and the introduction is weak.

It should have gone something like this: Code-named Sierra Six, mild-mannered Gentry was a member of a team of American operatives who is now in prison. He received a long sentence for a murder he committed on a failed mission. He’s released from prison by the CIA’s Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) and hired to be an assassin the CIA can deny exists. Fitzroy retires. Gentry has strong moral character, meaning he’s a killer with ethics. He’s also a bit of a ghost. He isn’t called the Gray Man for nothing. He’s ordinary looking but lethal. He carries out his assignments quietly and with deadly precision. He can move through crowds of people and suddenly be standing right next to his target.

On one mission, Gentry discovers that the people he’s killing are personal enemies of his new “boss,” Denny Carmichael, who is played by Rege-Jean Page. Gentry is unhappy and stops obeying orders. He’s marked for assassination by the CIA itself and the man chasing him is a deranged amoral killer named Lloyd Hansen, who’s mentally unhinged. Hansen is deviously played by Chris Evans, who delivers the film’s sharpest performance. He’s constantly reminded by a CIA official, a very good Jessica Henwick as Suzanne Brewer, that he’s harming the Agency.

As part of the weak story, which is cowritten by Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, there’s a flash drive involved, which contains a treasure trove of top secret CIA information that shouldn’t get in the wrong hands. Yes, that old canard. Too much is done for laughs. Greaney doesn’t write comic novels.

For two hours, “The Gray Man” lurches across the world, with a trail of excessively ludicrous, bloody mayhem left in Gentry’s wake. Because he’s no longer doing jobs, the Russos decided that with Hansen scoping out Gentry as a target, ultra-violence can be visited upon innocent civilians, policemen, American operatives, and everyone else who gets in the way, including any and all bodyguards. Only one of the many over-the-top action sequences, the set-piece in Vienna, is superbly edited and visually excellent.

As added attractions, Ana de Armas plays a secret agent who occasionally helps Gentry against Carmichael and Hansen, Julia Butters is a little girl with a pacemaker, and Alfre Woodard scores acting points as an aging super-spy.

After watching “The Gray Man,” you’d be justified in wondering why the books are so successful. Read them, and you’ll understand why.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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