The Gray Man (15, 122 min)
Verdict: Colorful 007 Scam
Persuasion (PG, 107 min)
Verdict: please don’t
The Railway Children Return (PG, 95 min)
Verdict: on the right track
As we wait with ever-decreasing excitement to learn the identity of the next James Bond, Netflix has invested in a world traveler, played by Ryan Gosling, hoping – and let me apologize for using the F-word – that a 007-esque franchise could follow.
The Gray Man is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who can call themselves unhappy for being the second most famous brothers to come from Ohio, after aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.
Granted, it’s only their imaginations that take flight, but their joint credits include four Marvel blockbusters, not least the box office giant Avengers: Endgame. They would only follow Steven Spielberg as the most commercially successful directors in film history. Accordingly, The Gray Man is the most expensive Netflix movie ever made, with a budget of about $200 million. Fortunately, it shows, with some stunts that are as excitingly extravagant as they are impossibly stupid. The Bond producers may need to up 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 gun as he stars in the thriller based on a book by Mark Greaney
We first meet Gosling’s wisecracking title character in a Florida prison, where he’s serving a long sentence for murder. But a shadowy bay, played by Billy Bob Thornton, offers to release him if he agrees to work for the CIA, with a license to kill.
The story continues 20 years later. As he pursues his latest target at a Bangkok nightclub, you won’t be surprised to learn that Agent Six (Gosling) has proven to be a superstar in the secret liquidation industry.
CLASSIC MOVIE ON TV
Now, Voyager (1942)
Veteran British star Claude Rains completed shooting his final scenes in this mighty romantic drama, directed by Bette Davis, just hours before reporting for work on his next project, Casablanca. Those were the days.
Saturday, 3.25pm, BBC2
But wait. It turns out that his paymasters aren’t the paragons of morality we all (that is, none of us) thought the CIA was. When Six sorts this out, he finds himself in his sights, hunted by a brilliant but sadistic rogue hitman played by Chris Evans (the macho American actor, not the merry British radio host).
The Russos and their screenwriters, adapting Mark Greaney’s novel, have enough fun with this to rub at least some of it off on the audience. They also shamelessly rob Bond, even casting the lovely Ana de Armas as Six’s CIA accomplice, just like she was the 007 in last year’s No Time To Die. Oh, and the CIA commander and main villain is played by Rege-Jean Page, the Bridgerton star tipped to be the next Bond.
In addition, as in all subsequent Bond films, a sort of geographic incontinence settles over the story, a series of captions that keep us informed as the action races around the world like a rocket propelled Michael Palin: Bangkok, Berlin, Turkey , London, Hong Kong, Prague, Croatia, Washington DC. Do they think we are idiots and are they more likely to believe in the plot if it has an ecological footprint like a stegosaurus? The answer is yes.
Train Return: The Railway Children Return starring Sheridan Smith and Jenny Agutter
That said, there is one big difference between this and Bond. There is no trace of carnality in this film. Six seems to be sexless. The only woman who turns the alpha males into goo is a beautiful child, Billy Bob Thornton’s niece, who, to add to the poignancy, also has a questionable heart.
Again, I imagine the Bond producers are taking notes. Maybe it’s time to become gender neutral.
- Where would Jane Austen be without gender? It drives all of her novels, along with social status, and the best adaptations respect this, even those that have been brutally modernized, such as the delightful Clueless (1995).
But another Netflix release, Persuasion, is clueless in all the wrong ways. The novel’s heroine, Anne Elliot, is intended to be a pale, mournful shadow of her former self, heartbroken that she was persuaded by her social ascending godmother to reject her one true love.
Well, Dakota Johnson as Anne, forever pinging glances into the camera, looks so pale and sad as an Instagram influencer. Director Carrie Cracknell has switched from the theater to make her film debut, which is perhaps why her film, which is set in Regency England but laced with smug anachronisms, and gives all but its topper to TV hits like Bridgerton and Fleabag, so grinning plays at 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 a few generations later, during the Second World – and a loving tribute.
Bobbie (the evergreen Jenny Agutter) is now a grandmother, 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 obvious to modern sensibilities, they’ve still made a really enjoyable family film.
- The Gray Man, now in cinemas, can be seen on Netflix from this Friday. Last week, longer reviews of Persuasion (now on Netflix) and The Railway Children Return (in theaters) ran.
Netflix image shows Dakota Johnson in a scene from the 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 an ace portrait
A nice documentary McEnroe (****, 15, 104 mins) shows that Nick Kyrgios, the defeated finalist of last Sunday’s men’s singles at Wimbledon, behaved, even at his most furious, like a particularly good-natured Buddhist monk compared to John Patrick McEnroe at the time
In a past life as a sportswriter, I had the pleasure of interviewing McEnroe and even playing a set with him (against Pat Cash and the TV host John Inverdale, if you ask). I use the word “fun” loosely.
He is revered today as a wise elder statesman of tennis, but charm is as scarce as it once was. But that doesn’t stop him from taking in company, as he indeed is in Barney Douglas’ excellent, penetrating film. Interspersed with arty shots of him walking the streets of New York at night, McEnroe speaks with impressive candor about the demons that drove him, his cocaine addiction, and the implosion of his marriage to actress Tatum O’Neal.
A close-up of John McEnroe (USA) looking up and holding his racket to his chest during The Championships 1981
An advertisement for the McEnroe documentary
Adventurer Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes in Explorer
The widest possible range of contributors such as Bjorn Borg, Keith Richards and Chrissie Hynde also speak, but perhaps the most enlightening comments come from his second wife, singer-songwriter Patty Smyth. “There’s no one else on the planet like John,” she says. “He’s a strange bird.”
- There is also none other than the fearless and tenacious adventurer Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes. Explorer (****, 12A, 113 min.) tells his compelling story, including my favorite detail: that he was kicked out of the SAS after sabotaging the production of the 1967 film Dr Dolittle. Enraged by Twentieth Century Fox’s “desecration” of a Wiltshire trout stream to make way for the set, Fiennes attempted to blow it up with stolen explosives.
Considering that the movie was a famous flop and Fox nearly went bankrupt, it’s a shame it didn’t succeed.
Both documentaries will be in cinemas from today [July 15].
Alison Boshoff is gone