Being behind two of the highest-grossing movies of all time must bring a lot of pressure with every new project you do. Those two movies will always be tied to your name, popping up in every trailer for your next film and be one of the first mentions in all the interviews you do. Soon, people will start questioning what made those top-dollar movies so much money in the first place. Was it really the creative touches you brought to the script? Or the choices you made while directing the flow of scenes? Or was it a combination of behind-the-scenes corporate mandates and insanely charismatic actors that really brought in the big bucks?
Anthony and Joe Russo may never escape the shadow of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but at least they’re trying. The Gray Man is the latest effort from the writing/directing brothers, a flashy spy thriller with an estimated $200 million budget from Netflix. The streaming giant is taking another big swing at keeping people on their couches instead of movie theaters, so who better to keep subscribers around then a film by the Avengers guys, right? Or maybe you need more than names and money to make a real blockbuster?
The names are certainly big: We have the handsomeness and charisma of Ryan Gosling letting his movie star persona do all the heavy lifting for his character Six, the CIA’s greatest off-the-books assassin. Why is he so great? He was in jail for some combination of smoldering good looks and assault or something? Who cares, it’s Ryan Gosling! Need more handsome movie stars? Well here’s Chris Evans using his own unflappable charm and chiseled face to make Lloyd Hansen, a discount Bond villain with an 80s midwestern cop mustache, ready for close-ups and one-liners. Does he have any depth or true menace to him? Of course, look at his mustache!
The Gray Man has real Netflix Original Film energy.
Goslin-er, I mean Six, goes globe-trotting in sharp suits and killing people without question. The one time he does, he finds a dirty little secret about an equally-handsome CIA colleague (Regé-Jean Page) and goes on the run. Hence Eva-sorry, the incredibly unique Lloyd being called in to get every gun, rocket launcher, and armored car to go after Six as he tries to rescue his old boss (Billy Bob Thornton) and a heartstring-tugging little girl (Julia Butters). There’s fights, stunts, gunplay, and Ana de Armas for scale, all in the comfort of your home. What a bargain!
The best thing you can say about The Gray Man is that it’s perfectly functional. The Russo brothers pack some impressive action set pieces, flashes of style, splashes of character development, and seasonings of humor into a tight 122-minute package. Sure it’s a mixture of the best elements from the John Wick franchise and the most recent Mission: Impossible movies, but it’s less derivative and more like the Russos learning the lessons those movies taught (consistency in events, less rapid editing, grounded stunts, etc.)
The movie has moments of stylistic framing and imagery, but cinematographer Stephen F. Windon (Star Trek Beyond, Sonic the Hedgehog, F9: The Fast Saga) muddies the look of the film with washed-out colors and boring tones. The script, based on Mark Greaney’s book, also has next to no spark of wit or cleverness to it and instead relies on the charm of the actors to keep viewers invested in the story. It thankfully doesn’t focus too much on shady CIA dealings and global government conspiracies like other modern spy thrillers, but the screenwriters (including Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely) forgot to replace that with anything fresh or even moderately interesting.
The cast is a gray area.
The Gray Man does achieve a rarity in the history of filmmaking, in that it might be the first summer blockbuster where every single major actor in it is giving their performance sarcastically. Everyone in The Gray Man acts with a relaxed, self-aware attitude like they know they’re in a movie and keep winking at the audience to remind them this is supposed to be a good time. Imagine if everyone in Deadpool acted exactly like Deadpool and didn’t take a single element of drama or emotion seriously. That’s fine for a moment or two, but that mood for the entirety of The Gray Man makes the whole experience feel inessential and very easy to shut off (especially after some of the movie’s more elaborate action scenes).
Only one of the movie’s players thrives on the attitude, so it’s a good thing that player is the lead. Gosling may be one of the most self-aware movie stars in Hollywood history, and, unlike Deadpool’s lead actor, he doesn’t play it up for the audience. Gosling thrives in the lackadaisical mood of the characters in The Gray Man and shows that he still has the chops to be an irresistible movie star. Everyone else from Evans to Thornton to Page are on cruise control throughout the movie and never get into any other kind of exciting gear. Armas is utterly wasted in her limited screen time, which is a real shame considering her scene-stealing performance in last year’s No Time to Die, which showed she’s more than capable of handling action scenes. It’s telling that in a cast of award-winning, A-list actors, the only one who gives a truly invested performance is 13-year-old Butters.
The bottom line.
If Netflix is truly sweating its loss of subscribers lately, it needs to take bigger creative risks with its content. Despite its massive budget and stocked cast, The Gray Man feels like Netflix playing things safe and betting on name recognition to hold an audience’s attention. Much like Red Notice, The Gray Man is filmmaking based on algorithms and trending topics rather than genuine craft or interest in material.
It’s not as synthetic-looking or desperate to be liked as Red Notice, but it still brings nothing fresh to the table. For all their obvious skills as filmmakers, the flaws of the Russo brothers are starting to become more obvious. They’re functional directors, but heavily rely on the material they’re given or the charisma of their actors to make a movie they’re working on truly come alive. After you’ve made movies about an intergalactic prophet throwing moons at superheroes, it’s hard to find something to top that.
The Gray Man is now streaming exclusively on Netflix. You can watch the trailer here.