Film Review: The Gray Man
The Gray Man
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
AGBO and Roth/Kirschenbaum Films
In Theaters 07. 15 and Streaming on Netflix 07.22
Joe and Anthony Russo have made some of the biggest box office hits of all time—under the Marvel banner, that is. The filmmaking duo is eager to prove that they can do it without riding on the studios’ cape tails, and so their new spy thriller, The Gray Man, has a lot to prove.
The Gray Man is Courtland Gentry (Ryan Gosling), an undercover CIS operative who gave up his name and his past, now simply known as Sierra Six. A highly skilled assassin, “Six” was recruited straight out of prison in order to undertake gray-area missions that are strictly off the books. When Six uncovers some delicate and disturbing agency secrets, he goes from being a weapon to being a target, and the people who want to keep those secrets from getting out bring in Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a sociopath and former agent, for a game of spy vs. spy. In order to lure Six in from the cold, Lloyd goes after the only two people who mean anything to him: Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), the man who recruited Six, and Fitzroy’s young niece, Claire (Julia Butters, Once Upon Time…In Hollywood).
The Russos want the world to see that they aren’t just directors for hire and that they possess the stylish vision of auteur filmmakers. In their last film, Cherry, they set out to show us how visually innovative and original they could be by carefully imitating Oliver Stone, Darren Aronfsky and Martin Scorsese. This time, it’s a mix of Michael Mann, John Woo and way too much Michael Bay. The Gray Man is loud, frenetic and filled with unmotivated and gimmicky money shots that only kind of work. The best action sequences are solidly entertaining, however, and the middle third of the film is a lot of fun. In particular, a spectacular chase sequence involving a commuter train reminds us just how good the Russos’ action can be when they aren’t worrying about mimicking someone else.
Unfortunately, the screenplay, written by Joe Russo and Avengers collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is surprisingly slapdash, with cringey, cartoonish dialogue and plotting directly lifted from various other thrillers, and the third act collapses under the weight of cliches and bad choices. The Russos’ can’t seem to decide whether they are trying to make a deliberately silly Face/Off-style, high-end schlock movie, or whether they want it to be taken as seriously as a Bourne film—they needed to make a decision and either go smarter or dumber. There’s also far too much machismo and nastiness on display, with torture scenes and PSTD flashbacks to Six’s childhood with an abusive father that feel like a bit too much for a PG-13 rating.
Gosling is virtually peerless among his generation in terms of the presence he brings to the table, and he raises The Gray Man a few notches above what it would be with anyone else in the lead. Evans is clearly having a blast playing Lloyd as a scenery-chewing, 90s John Travolta villain with a Ned Flanders mustache, and I wish I could say I had fun watching him. The former Captain America made a great bad guy in Knives Out, but his hammy antics are neither new nor interesting here. Ana de Armas fares much better as Dani Miranda, a fellow operative who has Six’s six, as it were, and she makes a great action star. Butters brings a lot of charisma to her role, though Thornton is just sleepwalking to the bank. Regé-Jean Page (Bridgerton) as Denny Carmichael, the villain who brings in Lloyd, seems hell-bent on making Evans’ performance seem both low-key and charming by comparison. Only Jessica Henwick (The Matrix Resurrections), as Carmichael’s colleague Suzanne Brewer, makes for a remotely compelling antagonist.
The Gray Man is best enjoyed as a no-holds-barred, turn-off-your-brain ’90s throwback. The Russo brother’s lackluster post-Marvel career is definitely becoming a problem, and if they don’t deliver something special with their next film, their careers as exciting, A-list directors could be blipped out of existence. –Patrick Gibbs