The Gray Man is a film perpetually at war with itself. High-flying action shot in a way that saps it of excitement. Set-pieces rich with color and design, rendered lifeless by liberal usage of green screen. Excellent performances, all ripped from a different, superior film. For every cool action beat, sizzling one-liner, or interesting performance choice to celebrate, there’s another reason to roll your eyes and ask “why are so many movies like this now?”
There are no real answers, but the most prominent has got to be “it’s the most financially efficient way to make a movie.” That’s really the answer to everything. Why have your actors train in martial arts for a few months when you can just give them the basics and cut around any foibles? Why fly Kenneth Branagh to Egypt when you can just throw him into a green box and bring a shitty facsimile of Egypt to him? Why build a huge, single-use set when you can underpay a visual effects team to paint over some green furniture with what you describe to them? It’s all money and time, and since time is money, it’s all money and money.
To be fair, I don’t think that the Russo brothers are bad filmmakers. Not by a long stretch. Their energy is fantastic through and through, and I’m not sure anyone could have brought home the OG Avengers saga quite like they did. That statement they released a while back citing high art influences for their pop filmmaking aesthetic drew a lot of scorn, but goddamnit I respected it. Anyone putting that much thought into a movie should absolutely be celebrated. All filmmakers should be approaching their medium with such energy, enthusiasm, and kooky ego. All filmmakers should have the goal of delivering something to be proud of. I get the sense that the Russos are extremely proud of The Gray Man, as they should be, but the aesthetics inherent to green box filmmaking are very much not to my taste.
(Yes, yes, I do know that “green screen” is like CGI in that it’s a neutral filmmaking tool, rendered good or bad by execution rather than some elemental rule, but my point stands that the overuse of some tools can become styles of their own, and gaudy/flat digital set-pieces are very much in the Russo filmmaking DNA).
All long-winded misgivings aside…The Gray Man mostly rips. We’ve got Ryan Gosling as Six, a convict on a life sentence who was given an opportunity for freedom in exchange for his undying loyalty as a CIA assassin. We’ve got Chris Evans as Lloyd Hansen, a private mercenary whose mission is to assassinate the assassin. And we’ve got Ana de Armas as Dani Miranda, a fellow agent/assassin whose loyalties remain in flux. In short, it’s all a set up for a cat and mouse thriller that puts two of our most scenery-chewingest actors at odds with one another and drops them into, well, no scenery at all.
No matter, star power is star power, and it’s enough to get a lot of this movie past its stylistic shortcomings. It’s a movie you’ve seen done better before, done well enough to excite, but not well enough to stick in memory for too long.
Where The Gray Man sings loudest is in its script — a B-movie through and through in which logic and character are traded for action, style, and general badassery. Where these features become bugs is in execution. The actors all recognize the nature of the script, as do the writers, but the tone the film wishes to take is one of prestige, which turns fun idiosyncrasies into annoying faults. It’s hard to roll one’s eyes when the material knows it’s cool on its own terms, but that much easier when the film seems to regularly ask “Is this cool? This? How about this?”
So yes, we do get a hero/villain throwdown for the ages (complete with a deliciously evil Chris Evans losing his cool), but we also get an astonishingly bad skydiving sequence that might as well have been created with crayons as a flip book for all its worth.
In summation, it’s a Netflix movie, a Russo brothers movie, and a pale post-John Wick knockoff — all fine things to be at best, but all things that really should be a lot better than they are here. Michael Bay should have made this movie.
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Written by Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Mark Greaney
Starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton
Rated PG-13, 122 minutes