Synopsis: When the CIA’s most skilled operative—whose true identity is known to none—accidentally uncovers dark agency secrets, a psychopathic former colleague puts a bounty on his head, setting off a global manhunt by international assassins.
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Regé-Jean Page, Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Henwick, Dhanush, Wagner Moura, Alfre Woodard
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Running Length: 122 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: When directors Anthony and Joe Russo wrapped up their boundary-busting run in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the epic final two films in The Infinity Saga (2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and 2019’s Avengers: Endgame), no one could blame them for wanting to shift gears. Not only did they pump the brakes on their action-heavy output, but they also changed direction altogether, delivering 2021’s sour Cherry on Apple TV+ to viewers and critics who thought it was the pits. Though the public could wholly attribute the blame for the failure to their lack of conscious oversight, that misguided biopic did precious little to help out star Tom Holland’s career post-Spider-Man. Still, it seemed to be a minor bump in the Brothers Russo Road of directing.
On paper, The Gray Man reads like it should be an enterprise worth undertaking for the directors known for their large-scale action sequences and creative camerawork, and it doesn’t hurt they’ve roped in three appealing stars as headliners. Like last November’s Red Notice, the trio and the material rarely mesh, resulting in a directionless film that is often voraciously senseless, frequently misogynistic, and unusually dull. That it took two directors to make a film so mediocre is almost incredibly commendable in a way, but that is little consolation when you’re an hour into the endless movie, and barely anything has happened.
Commuting the sentence of a young man convicted of murder and recruiting him to a fledgling covert ops agency of skilled killers, Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) knows there is potential in the man that can be developed over time. Flash forward eighteen years, and Six (Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049) is indeed the cool as a cucumber assassin his mentor knew he’d be. We know this because he’s wearing a slick suit, barely talks above a whisper, and looks up at his contact, Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas, Deep Water), from under heavy-lidded eyes. Six is on a mission ordered by agency head Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page, Sylvie’s Love) to take out a target when the plan goes awry, and he’s left with a piece of information that holds the answers to corruption from inside the organization. Of course, this puts a target on his back, and he’s soon on a globe-trotting run for his life while trying to expose the cover-up.
Unwilling to let this data leak, Carmichael calls in an outside clean-up crew led by Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans, Lightyear), a former recruit alongside Six that was kicked out for his unscrupulous methods. We get a good idea of those methods early on (it involves a car battery) and later when a set of fingernails gets threatened by a pair of pliers wielded by Lloyd. Lloyd is determined to take Six out, partly because he wants the bragging rights, which is why he’s willing to play dirty. Pulling all the stops out and ready to incite a worldwide news event to take out one man, Lloyd makes a final play for engaging Six…, and that’s when he goes too far.
If you haven’t gleaned it yet, The Gray Man comes down to Six and Lloyd proving who is the best bad guy, and it doesn’t matter how much collateral damage there is. Seeming to forget that both men are supposed to be experts in espionage and stealth, the Russo’s never provide an opportunity for them (or anyone) to be sneaky about anything. I don’t think they’d be able to film Evans creeping up behind Gosling competently; there must be some grand gesture to accompany it. It’s an example of brutish toxicity that feels disingenuous to both characters. Neither had to take on these tired tropes to be exciting, and the fact that they’re reduced to men that have to prove their might rather than finish the job and go home is more for the movies than anything honest and character related.
Gosling is far dourer in his role than Evans, who seems to be having a lot of fun in his ultra-tight retro-designer polo shirts and, according to Six, “trash stash.” As much as Gosling is having fun with the action sequences, he seems to get the dramatic scenes to be hokey pokey. A side plot involving Julia Butters (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) as Fitzroy’s kidnapped niece is so shoehorned to achieve one story contrivance it’s almost laughable. I almost wish we discovered de Armas played the same role from No Time to Die…or even Knives Out. At least we’d understand why she’s putting forth so little effort to set herself apart from the background extras.
The Russo’s make a critical error in casting Page and Jessica Henwick (On the Rocks) as two of Langley’s agents with dirty hands, but how bad either of them is remains to be seen. The undisputed star story out of Bridgerton, I think Page played his cards too early and jumped from that Netflix show to the next level before he was ready. There’s not much going on with him, both in personality or performance. While I appreciated another female character, Henwick spends most of the movie watching a monitor and giving an out loud recap of what we saw, lamenting how “bad this looks” for her. If only we cared enough to feel for any of these people. Don’t even get me started with the raw deal dealt to the esteemed Alfre Woodard (Clemency) or the utter ridiculousness of the performance of Wagner Moura (Elysium) playing a contact Gosling reaches out to.
If you watch for someone, you’ll be rewarded briefly when the mononymous Dhanush appears as a Tamil killer who gives Gosling and de Armas a good stomping. These action sequences land with a swift punch and makes you wish Dhanush had a more significant part to sustain the movie’s back end when there are no twists to divert The Gray Man off its standard path. Whenever I thought the filmmakers would introduce an unexpected wrinkle, the Russo’s opted for the easiest out and never looked back. Yes, they try to whip out their bag of camera tricks, but it looks like the fast-roaming lens-work Sam Raimi used decades ago in his Evil Dead films and even recently in Michael Bay’s Ambulance.
While the action sequences are big and loud, they mostly come off incredibly phony due to an overabundance of CGI, green screen, and composite filmmaking. Again, as I mentioned in my review of Thor: Love and Thunder, I’m shocked that in 2022 we’re still willing to accept effects that look so terrible or large-scale blistering shootouts that are impossible to follow. In the centerpiece scene of The Gray Man, Gosling is in the middle of a park chained to a bench and is descended upon by 15 men with gigantic guns trying to take him out. They wind up shooting at everyone BUT Gosling. Where’s the logic (or fun) in that? You stew on that because I’ve already thought about The Gray Man more than anyone involved has.