It’s natural to want to knock Anthony and Joe Russo down a peg. The duo shares directing credits on four smash hit blockbusters — including two of the ten highest-grossing films of all time — but all on the backs of the Marvel Studios brand. In film critics circles, they are considered workmen at best and philistines at worst, middle managers in the world of Corporate Cinematic Content. For my part, I can’t call myself a hater — I like their Marvel movies as much as the next nerd, and they also played pivotal roles in the production of two of the best sitcoms of this century, Arrested Development and Community.
Nevertheless, The Gray Man, their new $200 million action thriller for Netflix, only lends credence to the idea that the Russo Brothers’ value as directors is severely overblown. As a big dumb run-and-gun video game, it’s not bad, boasting a few creative action setpieces and a pair of charismatic stars, but “not bad” is about as high praise as I can manage. Without the benefits of a grand mythology and twenty films of runway, the Russo’s latest is flavorless, a big bag of unseasoned popcorn.
The Devil is Six
Six (Ryan Gosling) is a CIA assassin, part of the Sierra program that recruits convicts with a talent for clinical violence. Instead of wasting away in prison, Six is condemned to spend the rest of his life killing for his government. He’s told where to go, what to wear, who to talk to, and which anonymous “bad guy” he’s supposed to kill, but he’s never told why. For the past decade, at least, he’s gotten to work for a man he trusts, Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), who recruited him as a young man. But when his new boss, Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) tasks him to take out another Sierra operative, Six goes rogue, running off with digital proof of Carmichael’s corruption. To chase him down, Carmichael hires a private military company commanded by Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a grinning sociopath with no compunctions against collateral damage. Six leads Hansen on a chase across Europe, leaving a trail of rubble in their wake.
Most of The Gray Man consists of Six bouncing between grand action sequences, and on that level the movie works just fine. The fights are typically built around some sort of gimmick, which is enough to make them distinctive, if not outstanding. Six’s first brawl takes place at the center of a ring of fireworks launchers, while another is lit primarily by a road flare held in his fist. There’s a firefight set in part on a moving articulated tram, which constantly shifts the quality of each shooter’s cover, a brilliant idea for a shootout that I wish had been an entire setpiece. In between the highlights, however, is your typical gray CGI mush and run-of-the-mill urban movie warfare. The action is also nearly nonstop, with minimal time to breathe or develop the characters. I didn’t take a stopwatch to it, but if I had to guess based on my memory of the experience, I’d say The Gray Man is something like 65% action, and there’s rarely more than five minutes between any two fights or chases.
And, hell, I love action, but The Gray Man is also allegedly a spy thriller, and on that level it has absolutely nothing to offer. There is no mystery, there are no twists, and every character is exactly who they appear to be. There’s nothing practically or morally complex about the plot and no political stance other than the obvious fact that killing civilians is Bad and CIA handlers shouldn’t commission international black ops for personal gain. (It’s probably fine to do it for other reasons.)
The film is just as shallow emotionally — the lead character has only an inch of depth, with the slightest hints at an inner life and past that the Russos can’t be bothered to explore. (They cast the great Shea Whigham as Six’s abusive father, and he appears in a single shot of the final cut.) It’s not that the average Mission: Impossible movie is blessed with Le Carré-level intrigue, but what those films lack in complexity they gain back in spectacle, ambition, and charm, and The Gray Man doesn’t begin to compare on any of those levels.
There may not be much to Six as a character, but he’s a natural fit for Ryan Gosling, who excels at playing sad-eyed tough guys. Six also contains just a soupçon of my favorite Gosling performance, that of hard luck private eye Holland March from The Nice Guys. This is likely what sparked my biggest galaxy brain complaint about The Gray Man: I think it desperately wants to be a Shane Black movie. Every character in The Gray Man talks like they’re trying to prove that they’re more witty than the person they’re talking to, and it’s exhausting because none of the non-stop smirky banter is exceptionally clever.
Chris Evans’ shit-talking psycho Lloyd mostly works, and it’s still fun to see Captain America play a complete asshole. Evans plays Lloyd like if you gave his Knives Out character a billion dollars worth of guns and goons, and that’s good fun. Everyone else in the cast comes across as if they’re trying too hard to make their banter sound cool and natural, and even Gosling can’t pull it off half the time. Gosling is at his best in the film playing off young Julia Butters as his mentor’s tweenage niece, Claire, another character who feels straight out of a Shane Black film. Black has cast a smart, self-aware kid as the protagonist’s emotional anchor in his last three films, including The Nice Guys. The similarities are likely coincidental (especially since The Gray Man is based on a 2009 novel), but they only served to make me crave the Shane Black-penned, Joel Silver-produced version of this film.
Julia Butters makes the most of her limited role as the kid in distress, though she doesn’t shine nearly as bright as she did in her bit part as child actor Trudy in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Ana de Armas, however, is squandered as the flavorless Dani Miranda, a CIA agent who becomes Six’s ally in the fight against Carmichael’s army. de Armas gets in on the action, but feels miscast in a role that employs none of her charisma. Instead, she plays the tired cliché of the hypercompetent wet blanket female foil to the more entertaining male hero.
Still, she’s a firecracker compared to Jessica Henwick’s character, a CIA pencil-pusher whose only purpose is to express impotent rage and exhaustion at Lloyd’s wrecking ball tactics, and to get called a bitch a couple times. The Gray Man also features Wagner Moura and Dhanush — two of the biggest movie stars in Brazil and Tollywood, respectively — but their roles are small enough that both their appearances feel like transparent international marketing ploys. They each get to show off for about three minutes and then swiftly exit the movie. (Dhanush’s fight scene did, at least, convince me that I need to look up some more Dhanush fight scenes.)
Every summer offers two or three star-studded but generic action blockbusters like The Gray Man, and they’re rarely remembered unless they’re part of a larger franchise. Now that they can come directly to streaming, they’ll feel even less special. And, “unspecial” is the best word to describe The Gray Man. It’s not terrible — it’s not even disappointing, because my expectations weren’t high — it’s just this year’s Red Notice, a film that hundreds of millions will see but that no one will ever think about again.