The Gray Man Movie Review: A $200 Million Misfire From The Avengers: Endgame Directors
The Gray Man – out Friday on Netflix – brings the Russo Brothers, directors of Avengers: Endgame and Avengers: Infinity War, back to big-budget action cinema. And they have all the right ingredients at their disposal. For one thing, they’re working with the screenwriters behind those Avengers movies, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who have shown themselves to be able to handle unwieldy material. By contrast, The Gray Man – based on Mark Greaney’s 2009 novel of the same name – is thin and simple. In Ryan Gosling, they have a main star who has been underutilized in genre films. And he is surrounded by the smile of (former) Captain America in Chris Evans, the determination of Ana de Armas and the sweetness of Bridgertonby Rege-Jean Page. On paper, The Gray Man looks like a home run.
But for 120 minutes on screen, everything goes horribly wrong. There are plenty of action scenes scattered throughout The Gray Man, but none of them hold up. Rather than meticulously crafting scenes that build characters and fit their story, it seems the Russos have crammed one into every nook and cranny of the Netflix movie. Sure, they’re explosive, but this feels like a case of the directors justifying the massive cost of production and VFX budget. In fact, I would say The Gray Man is getting too big. A long mid-stretch essentially sparks a war on the streets of Prague – it’s odd that there are no repercussions – and convinced me that The Gray Man is essentially Russos’ Fast & Furious. (Incidentally, they share cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, who has helmed every entry since Fast Five.)
Worse, The Gray Man does a disservice to every member of its crowded cast. Gosling, playing a casual action hero here, is devoid of the charm he packs. Looks like the Russos wanted more from him Drive persona, but they lack that mystique. Evans, who has worked with Russos since the days of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, plays an over-the-top camper villain. It might feel like he’s thrown against type, but Rian Johnson has done it before — and better — with Knives Out. De Armas feels somewhat muted, while Page is stuck in one room for all of his scenes. The Gray Man strips the best qualities from everyone involved – there’s a lack of personality in filmmaking, and it’s big to be big – leaving behind a tasteless pudding that reeks of money.
Everything you need to know about the gray man
Eighteen years after being recruited by the CIA’s Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) from prison, ex-convict Courtland Gentry (Gosling) – now simply Sierra Six – discovers that the CIA’s new regime, led by a certain Denny Carmichael (Page), called him and his disposable cohort. With an expiration date written on him, when Six gets his hands on incriminating information involving the new regime, he flees. In response, Carmichael sends Lloyd Hansen (Evans) after him. Described as a sociopath by Carmichael’s underling, Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick), the reckless Hansen – he thinks he’s funny, but really, he’s just an asshole – goes after Six in the whole world. Going so far as to kidnap and torture former CIA assets, including Fitzroy and his niece Claire (Julia Butters).
Like Fast & Furious, The Gray Man also tries to be about “family”. Claire’s only family is Donald, who in turn is the closest thing to family for Six, as he had a troubled childhood. All of this is conveyed through unnecessary dialogue, rather than leaving it to the subtext. For the Netflix movie though, Donald and Claire basically serve as MacGuffins. They don’t matter as characters, which is true for almost everyone on The Gray Man. An unrecognizable Wagner Moura shows up for a brief section in a baffling role, almost as if it’s his doorway to directing a new Netflix project. Alfre Woodard has a minor role that gives him nothing to do. Shea Whigham plays Six’s father in a flashback, but I don’t remember him being around at all.
And of course, there’s Dhanush who appears about 80 minutes into The Gray Man as a bounty hunter who’s extremely adept at close quarters combat. He only gave about two lines — justified in the film, with Hansen describing him as someone who doesn’t say much — which is even less than what Joe Russo, one half of the directing duo, gets when he makes an appearance at the end. Known on-screen as the Lone Wolf, Dhanush hunts Six and his CIA ally Dani Miranda (de Armas) for Hansen. Minor spoilers follow. But when he discovers that Hansen is holding a young girl hostage, he balks. The gray man tries to position him as the moral center, which is hilarious since he’s a guy who’s willing to work for Hansen in the first place. Son, I think you know what you were getting into.
The Gray Man, Indian Predator and more on Netflix in July
Ultimately, The Gray Man is too plot-driven. Most of the scenes that put together his frantic action move the story forward. And even when the Netflix movie seemingly takes a break and gets into conversations between the main characters, it’s only trying to pull the wool over your head. A flashback that offers funny moments with Six and Claire in the middle of the film turns out to be a plot. The scene only exists because it conveys information on which the story will be based later. A break from the aforementioned long Prague sequence – involving Six and Dani – is filled with backstory, not character moments.
And it’s a shame The Gray Man doesn’t recognize those pitfalls, because sometimes there’s the promise of a diamond in the rough. On the one hand, Six and Dani can be quite fun together – and so it’s frustrating that the Netflix movie takes them away for almost an hour. The Gray Man has good dialogue in places and a very dry sense of humor that I was on board with. (I’m split on the Ken doll joke though, which feels like a meta reference given that Gosling is playing Ken in the upcoming Barbie movie.) That said, what made me laugh the most was unintentional at all, with a CIA agent calling the Prague disaster “the biggest blunder in the history of black ops.” Um, what part of all this looks like covert ops to you?
In an effort to make their “black ops” movie look like it’s hoisted onto a large canvas, the Russo Brothers rely on an age-old formula. The Gray Man offers a globe-trotting story that rotates between Bangkok, Baku, Langley, Monaco, Turkey, London, Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Croatia. But he does not spend more than a few minutes anywhere on the spot, except in Prague. All other “locations” are clearly a mix of batches or studio plates (i.e. when you shoot in one location but replace the backdrop with another). The climax sequence takes place on a Croatian island, but it would be obvious to many that the architecture is clearly reminiscent of Western and not Eastern Europe.
The names, splashed across the screen, only exist to make The Gray Man feel “exotic”. More annoyingly, locations don’t matter because dwellers never matter. Really though, The Gray Man is a small movie because it can’t think past itself – and its largely American characters.
Shamshera to The Gray Man, the biggest films of July
For reasons better known to the creators, The Gray Man presents each new location with panoramic drone shots – it reminded me of Red Notice, and obviously, not in a good way – which I assume were filmed by a crew B or C which was sent to each city concerned. It’s an inconsistent choice, a quality they share with Netflix movie action.
In many cases, it’s impossible to keep up with what’s happening on the sets of The Gray Man, whether it’s on a boat loaded with fireworks or a jumbo jet that breaks up in mid-flight. And for a film built primarily around action, the mise en scene and execution of the finale is strange and underwhelming. That pushes The Gray Man into The Rock-era Fast & Furious, where Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson would happily throw down their guns to engage in punches, in what felt like an absurd acknowledgment – and direct demonstration – of the underlying homoeroticism.
And this is the kind of place where the Russo Brothers – inadvertently? – get it over with. Conceived as a nonsensical, empty-calorie movie you play on a Friday night, The Gray Man is simultaneously a $200 million exercise in trying to launch a James Bond-scale franchise. It’s more Spectrum and Quantum of Solace, than Skyfall or Casino Royale. But while Bond has the power to weather those storms, for Netflix it’s a series starter.
A sequel starring Gosling and a prequel starring Evans are in the works (but there’s no post-credits teaser here). Greaney has written 11 books in the gray man series, so there is no shortage of material. And more importantly, the fact that Netflix is hungry for hit franchises should be enough to get them made. So far though, not only does The Gray Man have the most boring title on the planet, it’s also one of the most boring movies of the year.
The Gray Man was released Friday, July 22 at 12:30 PM IST on Netflix in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada.
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