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April 17, 2018

James Gray to Direct Spy Thriller ‘I Am Pilgrim’

This James Bond-esque movie has hit the jackpot with an unconventionally sensitive director.

Spy movies are practically being made on tap these days, if the era of not just John Wick and Kingsman but also Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow is any indication. These films, while thoroughly entertaining in their own right, don’t typically feature the most compelling characters, because they relish in their tropes. That’s where a challenging director like James Gray comes into the picture to overturn expectations of what the blueprint of a spy film should look like.

Deadline broke the news that Gray is set to direct an adaptation of Terry Hayes’s espionage thriller novel “I Am Pilgrim.” Hayes, who is also a screenwriter with credits including The Road Warrior and Dead Calm, is adapting his own book for the screen. MGM apparently imagines I Am Pilgrim as a burgeoning franchise, and the film has been a “high priority for the studio best known for 007” after years of development.

According to Deadline, here’s a brief summary of I Am Pilgrim:

‘Pilgrim’ is the code name for a man who doesn’t exist. The adopted son of a wealthy American family, he once headed a secret US espionage unit. Now in anonymous retirement, he is called upon to lend his expertise to an unusual investigation but ultimately is caught in a race against time to save America from oblivion.

The Amazon description for Hayes’s novel further elaborates that Pilgrim isn’t just a highly skilled spy; he has also written a book about forensic criminal investigations. Pilgrim’s written work may have provided the basis for this gruesome “textbook” murder that he’s brought in to investigate; a crime that involves a woman found face down in acid with all identifying features, including her fingerprints and teeth, removed. I Am Pilgrim takes its title character through several huge set pieces including “a public beheading in Mecca” and “a Nazi death camp in Alsace” as he chases a faceless man who is out for blood.

Despite being reminiscent of the Bond brand of spy thrillers — this is most evident in I Am Pilgrim‘s extravagant international settings and elaborate criminal schemes — Gray’s involvement in the project could signal a thrilling ride that won’t just be a flashy spectacle. Bond has gone dark for several movies now, but Pilgrim could be a much more intense character predominantly because there is a heavy sense of personal responsibility tied up in his story. Writing a book that directly leads to one or multiple horrible deaths would cause anyone to be guilt-ridden.

That alone makes Gray the perfect person to helm I Am Pilgrim. Ever since his directorial debut, he has prioritized the depiction of complicated relationships in his work regardless of genre constraints. His first movie, Little Odessa, is equal parts crime and family drama. Despite featuring tried and true tropes in the crime genre like stoic characters and mob culture, the film is ultimately a languidly told yet thoroughly effective tale about the generational impact of violence and cruelty. It is a character study of an irreparably broken family.

Gray also has the ability to build tension and excitement in his films without resorting to ostentatiousness. We Own the Night similarly builds up familial bonds to boost its crime drama premise, but it ends up far more multi-dimensional. The film is about a nightclub manager who is estranged from his brother and father, both of whom are cops. The family is soon caught up in the business of the Russian mob. The tenets of a crime drama reveal themselves in We Own the Night — hair-raising shootouts and car chases included — but they work because the audience cares about the dynamics involved. Allegiances constantly flip-flop in the film and for good reason. The film’s protagonist is fueled by the conflicts in his heart over which bond to uphold, the one between him and his blood relatives or his found family at the club.

Gray makes movies about relationships, plain and simple. As he continues to expand his horizons with newer projects and steps out of his crime drama comfort zone — Gray is currently working on a sci-fi epic called Ad Astra — his movies resist extreme stereotypical analyses. His filmmaking pushes genre conventions to their limit by being sensitive to the complexity of relationships and this elevates his work above typical genre cinema. Gray is bound to have a fantastic take on I Am Pilgrim that makes us care about the plight of its protagonist, making his spy film stand out above the rest.

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