Having soared on several creatively strong and financially successful Marvel films (including Avengers: Endgame, the apotheosis of the MCU’s initially accumulated narrative), sibling filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo now find themselves in Hollywood’s often treacherous second act. As producers, they have championed unexpectedly strong cop-genre efforts, what remains 2022’s best film, and some streaming-action clunkers.
As directors, the Russos have exclusively swerved to streaming services. Apple TV+ gave them creative carte blanche for the hilariously overwrought hard-edged drama of Cherry last year. And as demonstrated by The Gray Man, a spy-vs.-spy caper debuting Friday on Netflix, they’ve now created a $200 million laptop.
With a surplus of simulated skylines, scenic backdrops and smoke flares, a fully holographic performance would be no surprise in this CGI-crutch jaunt. Turns out it’s the line of fakery at which the Russos stop short. Still, no one would blame you for presuming the performances of anyone here besides Ryan Gosling or Chris Evans, as the dueling spies, are digital projections. If The Gray Man represents the Russos with big checks and no balances, the results suggest Marvel’s quality-control measures labored mightily to rein in their indulgences.
When they’re not hopelessly imitating the vulgar-visual auteurism Michael Bay gifted Netflix for 2019’s 6 Underground, the Russos trot out the same-old shopworn shorthand of this subgenre. The prologue puts us in 2004, where Courtland Gentry (Gosling) is nearing his second decade of imprisonment for manslaughter — levied when he was 15 and with zero chance of parole until 2031. Enter CIA legend Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton, giving big hologram energy) to throw open the jailhouse doors if Gentry agrees to a lifetime of black-ops, off-book wet work.
Jump to 2022 and the world of Sierra Six. No, that’s not a line of stain-resistant carpeting. It’s Gentry’s new code name in Fitzroy’s squad of Gray Men. “We exist in the gray,” Fitzroy says to hammer home the metaphor for nameless assassins with limited morality. Longtime MCU stewards Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely reteam with the Russos as co-writers, even if their work here more closely resembles that of stable boys.
Fitzroy has been put out to bureaucratic pasture by a pair of natty, bratty Ivy Leaguers (Regé-Jean Page and Jessica Henwick, too good for such anonymized antagonism). If they had their say, the Gray Men would be wiped out. But for now, they must still rely on Sierra Six for crucial missions like one in China. When Sierra Six expresses reluctance to kill a kid (hey, Kate!), it puts him on a collision course with his new handlers and their shadow-government agenda. There’s an intriguing cognitive dissonance to watching doe-eyed, soft-voiced Gosling facilitate so much destruction in his wake, but the actor, the character and the movie can only coast so far on that. Perhaps someone will someday make a supercut of all his disgruntled grumblings as Sierra Six suffers some new grievous injury (an odd callback to Gosling’s punching-bag presence in The Nice Guys).
When Sierra Six winds up in possession of incriminating evidence against his snooty handlers, they dispatch a fellow Crimson crony to kill him. Even before he cuffs people’s ears and clips off their fingernails, Lloyd Hansen (Evans) marks himself as an asshole — chiding his underlings for letting their phones ring during a brutal torture session only for it to be his phone. Evans essentially plays Lloyd like Hugh Ransom Drysdale from Knives Out had he gotten away with his murderous plans and absconded into a world of shadow violence. (Speaking of Knives Out, Ana de Armas is in this, too, which is all anyone can really say about that.) Evans excels at playing America’s ass and its asshole. He’s also the only one here who knows The Gray Man should’ve been Face/Off. With cut-rate acquisition of beats from other movies, it’s Half/Off.
After Uncharted, The Man from Toronto and this, cargo planes are where creative action staging has crawled off to die in 2022. Gosling’s face sometimes betrays unfamiliarity or uncomfortability with combat choreography. Rarely has a film so desperately wished Skyfall would ask it to prom, from a Chinese clash with the same color scheme to a climactic siege in the middle of nowhere. The only fun sequence finds the Russos one-upping their own chase scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and wittily letting Sierra Six gain an advantage by way of architecture).
It also feels like Markus, McFeely and Joe Russo (credited as a co-writer) wrote The Gray Man in real time — with improvisational prompts and Post-Its to plug the dam of deficient storytelling. This structure introduces, via flashback, a rickety Reason To Care™ for, and about, Sierra Six. And if you wondered what the reward is these days for running away with a scene in a Quentin Tarantino movie, as Julia Butters did in Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, well … its value hardly befits all those zeroes in this budget.
Along with ensuring that film-industry tradespeople maintain steady paychecks, movies like The Gray Man keep Tom Cruise up at night — namely the notion that any viewer would settle for such plastic-looking pap. (Oh yeah: Given the aesthetics of one particular skydiving bit, The Gray Man wants to leave prom with Mission: Impossible — Fallout.) Even acknowledging an abdication of practical-effects action to other filmmakers, the Russos’ efforts in the digital realm pale next to the spectacle of something like Tollywood’s epic RRR, where the sometimes rough-edged effects remain immediate and immersive. (This doesn’t stop the Russos from wasting Tamil superstar Dhanush in a nothing role whose subtext seems to be “exotic morality.”)
No, they’re too busy referencing an unseen “old man” who’s really pulling the strings — serfs in service of starting a Netflix franchise and technicians too timid to give this even the modest idiosyncrasies of something like Netflix’s own Interceptor. (More practically, they’re marking time until they re-enlist with Marvel for Secret Wars.) Rather clumsily, The Gray Man paws at notions from the superior TV series Peacemaker about the pitfalls of parental indoctrination, a move that mostly will prompt you to ask “Hey, is that esteemed character actor Shea Whigham in this movie for al of three seconds?” and feel depressed when that is, in fact, the case. (The film is littered with good actors checking out well before their characters.)
Look, the world — and Netflix — is filled with lazy movies that aren’t necessarily boring. But The Gray Man is essentially two hours of the Russos showing you color-timed photos of a vacation paid for by your Netflix subscription dollars. When Joe Russo appears briefly onscreen playing a CIA wonk who says “This is a black mark on all of us and I don’t know how to defend it,” the nods, oh, they will be weary.