The Great Women in The Gray Man

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The Gray Man feels to some extent like a return to the action movie heyday of the nineties when genre films stood alone without being part of a long running series; this was a period in which we got movies like Demolition Man, Under Siege, Total Recall, The Last Boy Scout, Point Break, The Rock, Face/Off, Clear and Present Danger, Speed and Con Air. A few of those did end up getting sequels and I am sure they all will soon enough going by the current state of things, but this was a time when you could go along to the cinema and know you were going to watch something that would be started off and all wrapped up in around a hundred and ten minutes and where you didn’t need to have seen several previous instalments to really know what is going on. To be fair, The Gray Man is planned as the first in a series of adaptations of Mark Greaney’s books but as for now it feels new and more than a little refreshing. The film has great action sequences, genuine suspense (or if not suspense then at least curiosity about how the hell the protagonist is going to get out of the situations he gets trapped in) and two wonderful performances from lead actors Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans.

Significantly though, and this is something that definitely sets it apart from those films from thirty years ago (anything with Sandra Bullock notwithstanding), it also has strong female characters. This isn’t a deliberately female led action film, of which there have been a handful in recent years (Salt, Atomic Blonde, Alita: Battle Angel, The Old Guard), and neither is it a movie that conspicuously places a woman next to and equal to a big name male (Edge of Tomorrow, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back – there’s a pattern to these). I like movies that do those things but I also applaud something like this where a selection of the players just happen to be women. Okay, sure it is consciously done but it doesn’t feel like it is and that is a step toward a better future for gender politics in cinema.

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Ana de Armas as Dani Miranda

First off we have Ana de Armas and you have to look at two of her previous roles to see how far things have come with her. The last time she starred opposite Ryan Gosling was in Blade Runner 2049 and while I made an ardent argument at the time that it wasn’t sexist, she did spend a fair amount of her screen time time naked. Then last year, she featured in No Time to Die as a highly capable secret agent but she didn’t get much screen time at all in that film. If you are one of the many at the point who wanted to see more of de Armas as a cool, gun toting, kick ass spy then now your wish is granted.

Miranda is the main character supporting Gosling’s beleaguered Agent Six in the field and she is great. She is not the super agent that he is but like Harry Potter, he’d have been dead pretty early on without his female companion’s help. She totally holds her own in every situation, never hesitates, is the match for every assailant and there is a nice moment when he says to her that he wouldn’t mind the opportunity to save her at some point. It’s one of those nice dialogue moments between a man and a woman that addresses decades of gender imbalances in film in a neat, witty and totally unforced manner.

It is true that de Armas’ Miranda does find her sense of agency challenged at points but this is not about her sex and she never quite loses the upper hand. She also doesn’t lose any of her clothes.

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Jessica Henwick as Suzanne Brewster

Henwick’s Brewster is not the CIA boss, that’s Regé-Jean Page, but she is high up in the organisation so that’s nice to see. Throughout the film she fights to maintain some authority, against Page and then Evan’s nutso mercenary Lloyd Hansen who both embody rampant male ego in different ways. She is not a woman who likes taking crap but it forced to until she is slowly able get back some control of the mess that these men have created.

The feminist implications of the character are not writ large, there are no script nods to it like with de Armas, but they are there and they are to be celebrated.

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Alfre Woodard as Margaret Cahill

Woodard’s Cahill is the CIA boss, or at least she was the chief before her retirement. It is good to see the sage intelligence agency veteran as a woman, which is not something we are totally unfamiliar with after Judi Dench in Bond but it still isn’t common. This is emphasised by the fact that Cahill was a man in the original book.

Cahill is not only wise and straight talking, she is also brave and honourable. Her whole character is a bit formulaic but she still a positive female role model.

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Julia Butters as Claire Fitzroy

Butters, character is definitely the one that is a bit of a trope. She is the kidnapped victim being held as collateral, the kid who taught the tough killer to find his heart and the damsel in need of rescue so she is ticking several cliche boxes. All of this being the case she is also absolutely there to serve the man’s story rather than to have her own narrative.

Under the Russo Brother’s direction and Julia Butters’ performance though she feels more authentic than this. Butters left a mark with her brief turn in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and the same confidence and wisdom beyond her years demonstrated there comes through again. Despite still only being thirteen Butters has the ability to command the camera and give her characters agency, no matter the circumstances. Her Claire is bold, courageous and insightful in the face of threat but not in a way that feels unrealistic.

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There is much to enjoy in The Gray Man, none of it is truly groundbreaking but it is all handled well and that includes the female characters. You know what they say, behind every Grey Man there’s a great woman. I guess we’ll see if this is true if this movie gets its sequels but in this case there are four.

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The Gray Man is in cinemas now and is on Netflix from Friday.

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