The Gray Man
- Directors: Joe and Anthony Russo
- Writers: Joe Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
- Starring: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Julia Butters, Alfre Woodard
You know your movie is in trouble when the behind-the-scenes happenings are more intriguing than what’s put forth on the screen. Such is the case with Joe and Anthony Russo’s newest action blockbuster The Gray Man. The film represents Netflix’s biggest production ever, a $200 million franchise starter that’s based on Mark Greaney’s book of the same name. And with A-list stars like Ryan Gosling (making his first on-screen appearance since 2018), Chris Evans, and Ana de Armas on board, the streamer is hoping for a big return on its investment.
It makes sense why Netflix would shell out the big bucks for the film on paper: Anthony and Joe Russo are proven commodities as franchise filmmakers after directing some of the best-received Marvel films, including Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. They’re working in tandem with their frequent screenwriting collaborators, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The conceit is a globe-trotting spy thriller, a proven formula that’s worked for the Bourne, James Bond, and Mission: Impossible franchises, and not too dissimilar from the Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier – also starring Evans. So why does The Gray Man feel so tired, so formulaic and unoriginal?
It could be because the story never manages to step out of the shadows of any of the above-mentioned films that came before it. Gosling enters the picture as Court Gentry, a convicted murderer recruited by the CIA to become its newest un-traceable mercenary. Nobody ever says outright that Court (codename Sierra Six) is the best there ever was, but they might as well, given how ruthlessly and efficiently he takes out anyone that stands in his way, including an early target in Bangkok. Turns out that early target was a former CIA asset who is no longer useful to the agency. The bulk of the film concerns Gosling as he protects a flash drive (it’s always a flash drive, isn’t it?) that contains some incriminating government secrets (it always contains incriminating government secrets, doesn’t it?). Hot on his tail is Lloyd Hansen, a former CIA asset turned private contractor who plays fast and loose with obtaining what he wants now that he no longer has to answer to the federal government. Evans escapes the film largely unscathed since he’s clearly having so much fun in the villain role, leaning into Hansen’s psychopathic tendencies. Strangely, Hansen spends much of the film watching the action unfold from a situation room; you would expect an action film with a physically imposing actor like Evans to get his hands dirty more than what you get here.
One of the biggest head-scratchers of The Gray Man is why so many capable actors appear in such nothing roles. Ana de Armas, who proved she could kick ass with aplomb in No Time to Die, is given a boilerplate sidekick role, but at least she gets to partake in most of the action scenes. Alfre Woodard shows up for a scene and is barely given any room to breathe. Shea Wiggum probably spent half an hour recording dialogue as Six’s abusive father, and allegedly physically appears in a literal blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashback. Regé-Jean Page makes good use of his role as the CIA honcho who’s trying to prevent his dirty laundry from being made public, but feels less like a character and more like a Bad Guy.
Most of the action scenes are small in scale, but have some energetic fight choreography to them. The highlight is an all-out assault in Prague, full of guns and car chases and trains and explosions. But the real MVP of The Gray Man, and perhaps of 2022 so far, is the drone camerawork. After making a splash in Michael Bay’s Ambulance, they’re utilized more effectively here, adding an extra jolt of energy to action sequences as they zip and dive around the scene. Stephen Windon’s cinematography goes a long way to make the film look and feel like a big-budget spectacle that could be great to see on a big screen. It’s just too bad that the Russo brothers have already declared that seeing movies in theaters is “an elitist notion”.
The film arrives at an interesting time for Netflix, as they’re bleeding subscribers and an ad-supported tier is on the horizon. They’ve tried and (mostly) failed to get big action franchises started over the years with films like 6 Underground, Red Notice, and Army of the Dead, and The Gray Man is clearly their next gambit. Should a sequel – let’s face it, one will come sooner or later – be smaller in scale, or should it continue to go big and commit to more global adventures? Will any sequels contain any commentary about American interventionism in international affairs – a subplot that’s sorely lacking here? Will the Russo brothers continue on with the franchise? When the time comes, will you still be a Netflix subscriber to find out?
The Gray Man will be available on Netflix on July 22.
- If anything, perhaps Netflix could campaign for the film’s visual effects. The category tends to be a mix of genre and awards-friendly fare, and the action sequences feature some mostly seamless computer imagery.
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