The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Latest from the Russo Bros. Directing Duo
What is the overriding philosophy of The Gray Man? Even almost a week after seeing the film for the first time, I can’t discern what the movie is trying to say – if anything – or what the point of it all is supposed to be. In Top Gun: Maverick, it’s to celebrate how cool aviation is. In Pacific Rim, it’s to showcase how cool robot vs. monster fights can look. In The Gray Man…see what I mean? Yes, The Gray Man is an action movie directed by the Russo Brothers (of MCU fame), so its action sequences largely stand out as its greatest asset, but beyond those set pieces, it doesn’t ultimately seem to have an identity or goal beyond “showcase the Russo Brothers outside of the MCU.” The simple spy thriller framework would work on its own, sure, but the ensemble cast is largely taking things too seriously for there not to be something more to the convoluted narrative, which features so many twists and turns, it’s a wonder the whole thing doesn’t ultimately end up being some sort of bad-movie-within-a-movie plot device. Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans are clearly having fun with what the movie actually is, but everyone else seems to be more or less in line with what the movie thinks it is. Even the incomparable Ana de Armas seems far more misdirected here than she was in No Time to Die, another a spy thriller in which she has significantly less screen-time.
You’ve heard the phrase a million times before: “turn your brain off.” Oft used in contexts wherein people shut down the analysis segment of their thoughts during a film or show in order to enjoy something purely as entertainment, the phrase has been uttered by many a moviegoer when someone within earshot complains that a certain kind of tentpole film (typically in the action genre) lacks the substance necessary for them to truly consider it good or even worth revisiting at all somewhere down the line. The Jurassic World franchise, Legendary’s Monsterverse – even some sects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – have fallen into this purview a few times, as has much of Netflix’s general slate of action cinema. And, to be sure, there are plenty of films that exist that don’t require deeper thought or further analysis beyond what’s literally happening on screen at a given time and still work quite a lot on those terms. Pacific Rim doesn’t bother to explore how the multi-national cooperation of an entire Jaeger strike force affects the overall economic state of the world, or whether the monsters coming from the Pacific floor are really just looking for a new home; it’s simply about enormous robots punching giant monsters in the face, and occasionally hitting them with a cargo ship acting as a makeshift baseball bat. Hell, even the excellent Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t exactly stand up to scrutiny when one considers the international geopolitical world in which it operates, something that it’s not-so-subtle about not addressing; then again, Top Gun has never really been about that, just skilled pilots dogfighting in fast planes. These two aforementioned films could both fit into a “turn your brain off” categorization because their very natures don’t require the viewer to think about more intricate subtexts beyond the story being told. However, what these films do have are clear stakes, a set of goals for their characters to accomplish, and motivations that allow the audience to get on board with the mission hoping to be accomplished. The Gray Man doesn’t have these – not really.
This has been an ongoing problem for Netflix with their action filmography. The action is good, often great, and easily the best part of the film, but nothing else is given as much attention due to the way that many of Netflix’s hits are algorithmically-generated to get maximum possible engagement with as little possible effort. It’s one of the reasons why they’ve decided to stop producing “vanity projects” like The Irishman or Roma in favor of quicker, slightly more expensive but ultimately higher viewer-count projects. If Netflix can keep a viewer on its service who thinks seeing a decent-if-not-great action film from a couple Avengers directors is better than going out to the theater for a movie they’re not guaranteed to like, that’s the route they’ll take. To that end, The Gray Man will likely do very well on Netflix when it hits on July 22. But beyond boosting subscriber numbers and getting Ryan Gosling back into the movie fold, it doesn’t really seem to have an end goal in mind.
The film also suffers from what seems to be the Achilles heel of the Russo Brothers outside of the MCU, if 2 for 2 can be counted as a pattern – rather than “less is more,” more is more. The Russo Bros directed the biggest movie of all time – Avengers: Endgame – to unprecedented success, and anyone who’s seen that film is more than aware of how huge an event it was. Three hours long and containing almost every callback, easter egg, reference, and tease that could fit, it is very much fits the idea of throwing everything at the screen, a “more is more” philosophy. The difference between that and The Gray Man is that Avengers is big by necessity; if you’re wrapping up a 22-film saga you’ve been building since 2008 and hoping to craft a truly proper sendoff, you don’t want to leave anything on the table. But with The Gray Man, it’s as if they can’t seem to help themselves by just taking the table with them. So much is happening all the time that any characters outside the big three (Gosling, Evans, Armas) can only operate as mouthpieces and plot drivers based on the needs of the script. Even poor Julia Butters and Billy Bob Thornton – both excellent performers with solid resumes and presumably added greatness to come – are wasted here as simple exposition dumpers and plot devices. They’re hardly characters at all.
In the end, The Gray Man may satisfy those hoping for a simple action flick with some dynamic performances and a decent sense of pace, but I grow increasingly weary of Netflix’s “more is more” style overriding what might otherwise be something fun if only as much effort were put into their scripts as was put into their bottom line. Gosling and Evans are clearly here for what the film is, but it continues to get in its own way, trying its hardest to be generic when it doesn’t have to be. If Netflix truly wants to reclaim its title as the leading subscription service for quality content of all varieties, it’s going to have to start making better content (and giving auteurs like Scorsese and Noah Baumbach their funding back).
I’m giving “The Gray Man” a 6.5/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.