Regardless of your thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Russo Brothers clearly landed the plane. After first picking up the camera for the MCU with 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the filmmaking brothers crafted several of the MCU’s most successful titles. Dealing with large ensembles, keeping the train on the tracks, and executing decades-long emotional beats proved their instincts on many filmmaking questions. This made their latest film, an adaptation of The Gray Man novel from Mark Greaney, an exciting prospect. Sadly, audiences begging for the next spy franchise, will be left cold. With talents like Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, and Ana De Armas, you should not lay a dud like The Gray Man.
The Gray Man follows a covert operative known as Six (Gosling) after a job goes wrong. Six’s target makes the agent question his work for the first time in years. Soon, Six must run from one of the most dangerous men alive Lloyd Hansen (Evans) and his former boss Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page). As Six attempts to hide a secret, the man who brought him into the program (Billy Bob Thornton) and his daughter Claire (Julia Butters) find themselves in Hansen’s crosshairs.
Most of what makes The Gray Man such a spectacular miss is the disposable nature of the film. In the days following my initial viewing, I did not quite understand the frustration of other critics of the film. In fact, I thought I enjoyed it. However, over the last week, I have simply not spoken about it to anyone. It has not stuck with me in any way, and it is as if I never watched a film at all. There can be pleasure in empty calories entertainment, especially in action films and reality television. However, the sin becomes apparent when one misuses many of our best actors.
Gosling does his best to keep the metaphorical train on the tracks and provides Six with an empathetic nature. Nothing in this screenplay makes it clear we should like Six, but our previous relationship with the actor works wonders. His ability to charm has never been in doubt, and one could argue any success The Gray Man experiences is on Gosling’s movie star charisma.
Meanwhile, the Russos ask Evans to brush off a discount bin version of his Scott Pilgrim vs. the World villain. The one-liners are funny at the moment, but nothing that will stick in the action-character pantheon. Evans having fun has always been a joy, but the film does little to make that experience stick. The quips are so corny, they would not work in a Fast and the Furious film. Rather than actually well-written and topical humor, they feel like a series of alts that the writers came up with on the day.
Women also find themselves the odd ones out in The Gray Man, relegated to sidekicks or damsels in distress. The wild mishandling of De Armas and Henwick becomes a momentous issue for the film. For two actresses to be so misused a mere year after scene-stealing roles in No Time to Die and The Matrix Resurrections speaks to a problem with the directors. Another known scene-stealer, Butters finds herself in a role that would at best be described as lazy Shane Black karaoke.
At one point, Alfre Woodard appears to add a jolt of electricity into the film. Her brief time on screen is far more exciting and intriguing than the giant setpiece that follows it. While she can deliver exposition with purpose and intrigue, the action flounders and lessen the stakes at every turn. The Russos inability to add stakes or realism to these sequences remains confounding. Perhaps most embarrassing, they seemingly cannot help but use poor drone footage as their establishing shots. Admittedly, they could not have known that Michael Bay would put on a masterclass in perfecting drone footage in Ambulance, but it speaks to a more significant issue.
The directing brothers have proven they favor style over substance. Why use a drone shot, which often adds frenetic energy to sequences, simply to show a stationary building? Why does nearly every fight sequence have so much smoke they look like a high school haunted house experience? Perhaps worst of all, why are there so many colorless CGI backgrounds? Even the ones that add color often feel like CG sludge. For the directors who crafted the paintball episode of Community and The Winter Soldier, they seem to have regressed as filmmakers.
Seemingly every idea, every character, every technique, and every actor in The Gray Man has been more successful in better films. How the Russos find a way to leave De Armas and Gosling without chemistry, despite their performance in Blade Runner 2049 created one of the most erotic sequences in the last twenty years of film, borders on negligence. The Russos have hinted about discussions that would reunite them with the MCU. Frankly, that might be where they need to stay.