The Gray Man
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Written by Joe Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the novel by Mark Greaney
Starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas
Classification PG; 122 minutes
Opens in select theatres July 15; streaming on Netflix starting July 22
It ain’t easy makin’ green. Or so the sentiment must be in the Russo household, as filmmaking brothers Anthony and Joe continue to stumble around the Hollywood wilderness after having directed the biggest blockbuster of all time, 2019′s Avengers: Endgame. Since those halcyon Marvel Cinematic Universe days, the Russos have enlisted their former super-friends to help them muddle through a handful of disposable productions, ranging from the merely fine (producing and co-writing Extraction, starring Chris Hemsworth) to the didn’t-realize-it-existed (producing 21 Bridges, starring Chadwick Boseman) to the abjectly terrible (directing the crime drama Cherry starring Tom Holland).
Now, it is Chris Evans’s turn to pay the Russo Bros. piper, as Captain America himself is enlisted/blackmailed/what-have-you to headline The Gray Man, the kind of aggressively frustrating Netflix thriller that makes you fear for what may be next asked of fellow Avengers Paul Rudd or Mark Ruffalo. Fellas, there is no shame in sending those Russo calls straight to voice mail. You don’t owe anybody anything in this business! (Except for your contractually obliged Nth number of MCU movies.)
Starring opposite Ryan Gosling (who has somehow not yet been cast as a superhero, but is also playing a smarm-heavy role here clearly intended for Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds), Evans is half-cleverly cast against type as villain Lloyd. Yes, his name is … Lloyd. He’s a sociopathic CIA contractor who considers underage collateral damage a fun li’l added bonus to every mission. Assigned to hunt down the rogue-but-moral agent code-named Sierra (Gosling), Evans is given free range to cackle maliciously while twirling his mustache (or more accurately, stroking his short and bushy pornstache).
While the actor is having the best time out of anyone in The Gray Man as an unhinged bad guy – Gosling looks like he would rather be anywhere else – the Russos give him precious little bad guy-ing to do. Aside from two muddled fight scenes with Gosling (one interrupted by a tranquillizer dart, the other so sleepy it might have been choreographed by a tranquillized stunt co-ordinator), Evans spends his time standing behind a phalanx of screens telling other, more anonymous, charmless and ‘stache-less bad guys what to do. Which crystallizes The Gray Man’s black-and-white dilemma: It is a thriller made by people who know what great thrillers can do, but without the ability to make one themselves.
This flailing, manic desire to impress action junkies head-butts into cold, hard reality too many times, as the Russos and their regular MCU screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely routinely mistake nifty ideas for engaging, coherent filmmaking. In theory, the following set-pieces sound impressive: a midflight knife fight; a chase between a sports car and a tram in downtown Prague; a bullet-riddled assault on a Croatian castle. But like the world’s worst assassin, The Gray Man is all killer promise and zero execution. The hits, the quips, the stakes: nothing lands. The Russos can’t even find sparks in a fight scene set in an honest-to-God fireworks factory. This is flat, flaccid action that makes the wan green-screenery of the MCU look like the delirious highs of Mad Max: Fury Road.
The directors do get to show off their one definitive stylistic trait, though: placing GIANT CAPITAL letters onscreen to denote new locations (a staple of their filmography stretching back to Captain America: Civil War). And those huge-font place-settings do come in handy here, given that The Gray Man treks across-slash-destroys large chunks of Asia, North America and Europe, eating up many millions of dollars in the process.
It is not enough to waste Netflix’s cash, though – the Russos also squander the contributions of their vastly overqualified supporting cast. Ana de Armas, so delightful when wielding a semi-automatic in No Time to Die, gets to look sexy-bored in a thankless role as Sierra’s career-minded colleague. Billy Bob Thornton gets to squint and grunt as a former CIA honcho. And Bridgerton sensation Regé-Jean Page (juice those algorithms, Netflix!) gets to throw his smoothies across the room in rage as Lloyd’s agency minder, a cipher of a villain whose ultimate machinations are revealed to be of the sub-Tom Clancy variety.
Sadly, the Russos/Netflix appear to have big franchise ambitions for The Gray Man – there is lots of talk from characters about some shadowy “old man” who is actually pulling the CIA strings, though we never get to meet him. But if the filmmaker brothers are hoping this will whet our appetites for a GMCU (Gray Man Cinematic Universe, naturally), then I’ve got my own endgame to deliver their way. Borrow a page from Thanos, guys, and take a rest.
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