Even if the Russo brothers are the second highest-grossing directors of all time (with an all-time gross of $6,842,882,738), they have struggled mightily to do anything noteworthy outside of the MCU. At this point, picking on Cherry is literal low-bearing fruit, but it’s also not as if the Russo’s MCU entries were very inspiring, either. And before I get too far into this review, let me just clarify that I do not personally hate the Russo brothers; we share a love for Heat and both bring it up constantly. I just don’t go around comparing anything I do to the masterpiece. Simply put, I just don’t like their movies.
But none of that matters because the brothers have now traded in CGI splash pages for a spy-thriller starring the hero that kickstarted their MCU careers, Chris Evans, in a bizarre film that can’t decide whether it wants to be as globe-trotting as the Mission: Impossible films, as over-the-top as the Fast & Furious franchise, or slick like a Bond film. Spoiler alert: it’s none of those and despite the best efforts of a starring trio for the ages, Chris Evans, Ryan Gosling, and Ana de Armas can’t save a film that is in incapable hands.
In 2003, a man named Court Gentry (Gosling) is arrested but offered a chance at redemption by working as a mercenary for the CIA. Fast-forward 18 years, and Court, now going by Sierra Six or simply Six, is cursed with the burden of knowledge of some dark government secrets and becomes a primary target by the CIA. He’s hunted down by a psychopathic former colleague, Lloyd Hansen (Evans); an operative whose torture tactics likely stem from playing the GTA V torture mission a few too many times.
The Gray Man is a relatively simple film about a man being hunted down by another man; but make no mistake, this is not The Fugitive. To start with one of the few positive things I have to say about this film, The Gray Man features a cast that makes it watchable. But I’d give you a dollar if you could give me a rundown of the plot more than two days after viewing the film. Hey, at least it’s about two hours long!
Despite how much I may crap on them, I do have all of the respect in the world for the Russos and what they did with the MCU. Maybe my distaste stems from the one time they compared their shootout scene in The Winter Soldier to the shootout scene in Heat. Do you know the hubris it takes to compare a superhero film to arguably the greatest heist film of all time? But even still, the Russos have never shown an ability to direct anything compelling or something that isn’t dressed in a spandex suit that’ll be touched up in post-production by over-used, underpaid visual effects workers. Even the success of their Avengers films feels as though it should be accredited to Kevin Fiege more so than the directors.
And if The Winter Soldier was the Russo brothers’ Heat, does that make The Gray Man their Ambulance? Don’t get me wrong, Ambulance is a fun time — slightly more so than The Gray Man — but it feels as though some intern put Ambulance on the nearest screen for inspiration during the editing process of The Gray Man. There are an obscene amount of drone shots in this film. Even if Michael Bay used drones in Ambulance like he had just gotten one for Christmas, at least there were sparks of creativity in some of the shots from the bullet hole tracking shot to the maneuvering he does around the pillars in a parking garage. In the case of The Gray Man, half of the drone shots felt like attempts to replicate Ambulance, the others serve as a way for the Russos to shake you awake to make sure you haven’t fallen asleep yet. I guess at the end of the day, I’ll take drone shots over another shot from the perspective of someone’s rectum.
Considering The Gray Man is supposed to be an action-spy-thriller, it’s sad that the action is forgettable. The only notable set pieces or action sequences are the Prague train sequence (more on this in a second) and the final showdown between Six and Lloyd. But from the very first action sequence, any sudden or fast movements look motion-smoothed like the 4K TVs at Best Buy; it’s hideous. Usually, even if a film is shot with 4K lenses, it doesn’t look like a soap opera on a big screen. The Gray Man has somehow managed to break that curse with some of the weirdest-looking action scenes in recent memory. Some of the choreography is okay, like a fight that takes place in a hospital where they had their characters be resourceful like Jackie Chan and John Wick, utilizing everything in arm’s reach as a weapon — including a defibrillator — but all of that is nullified by the motion-smoothing and interwoven drone shots.
That’s not to say that some of the action sequences won’t put you to sleep. The aforementioned Prague sequence is the best the film has to offer, yet they manage to blow it by the end of it. I don’t mean to pick on visual effects workers, especially after the recent comments by artists who worked on Marvel projects, but why did the sequence’s quality dip so much when the train crashes? The visuals are fine for 90% of this sequence, but it quickly becomes undifferentiable grey sludge. This one feels like it rests more on the shoulders of the Russos than the visual effects artists, however, because they could have opted for a crescendo that didn’t require a train running through buildings or whatever happened (it was a bit hard to see through all of the grey smoke and explosions). And remember when Dom Toretto caught Letty on the hood of his car in that one Fast & Furious movie (this has actually occurred on more than one occasion in that franchise)? That was cool, but why did The Gray Man parody that? Leave that to Vin Diesel, please.
But for every Prague sequence, there’s a plane fight that makes Uncharted‘s look like Tom Cruise choreographed it or a town-square shootout that has a lone standout of an extra who made the most of his death by dolphin-diving across the screen when shot. Six is handcuffed to a bench while dozens of people are shooting at him. During all of this, Lloyd says what we’re all thinking, “How hard is it to kill one guy?” And hey, if just one person would have managed to land a bullet on Six, it would’ve saved all of us watching 40 minutes.
It’s about time to get to the cast. There’s no denying that the leading trio is great. Ryan Gosling’s character is a bit boring; Six is the renegade who is cursed with knowledge that he is now being hunted for. But despite his rough edges, Six has a few heartwarming moments with a young girl he must look after named Claire (Julia Butters).
I think it’s been fun to see Chris Evans take on a variety of roles after being Captain America for what feels as long as the time Cap spent under the ice, but Evans’ performance as the douchebag, “rebel without a cause” is sort of one-note. If you’ve seen his work in Knives Out or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, you’ve seen Lloyd. Evans’ performance of the mustache-sporting antagonist consists of the snarkiness of Ransom, maybe saying a line that may make you chuckle before he has an outburst and then returning back to his calm, yet chilling demeanor.
Like Vanessa Kirby stealing the show from Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in Hobbs and Shaw, Ana de Armas steals the show from her male co-stars. How MGM let her slip through their fingers after being the best part of No Time to Die and not immediately greenlighting a spinoff for her character is beyond me; instead letting her go off to Lionsgate to do a John Wick spinoff. The way that de Armas is able to step into the action genre and absolutely kill it (pun intended) is similar to how Jenna Ortega is overtaking the horror genre as the new “Scream Queen.” Dani probably sounds the most mundane of the trio. At first, she’s trying to do her job, but she gets dragged in further after having her arm twisted by the CIA. In terms of the hand-to-hand combat in The Gray Man, de Armas has the most memorable sequences by a country mile.
It’s also great to see Julia Butters, who stole the show in her brief, yet effective, appearance in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. It’s amazing to see Butters go from Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie to Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, and Ana de Armas as co-stars. She’s able to hang with anyone you put in front of her, and she does so with the substantial amount of screentime she shares with Gosling in The Gray Man. Oh, and she’s starring in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans alongside Michelle Williams, Seth Rogan, and Paul Dano later this year; I see you, kid. What a start to an amazing career for someone who has had an amazing start to a career at an age where most kids are still taking pre-algebra.
And before it sounds like I just hate fun and can’t watch a stupid action movie, I can enjoy these types of movies and ignore the stupid plot holes. If you put a Jason Statham action movie on in front of me, I’ll watch it just to see how absurd it can get. But at the same point, in a dire situation where she is short on time, how is Dani (de Armas) able to drive from Berlin to Vienna just in time to save someone’s ass? The Russos follow the same traveling logic as their Civil War film, which is none. I could also bring up how Six gets out of a well a la The Silence of the Lambs.
To namedrop another Netflix action film that hopes to be spun off, The Gray Man isn’t as egregiously bad as Red Notice; a film starring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot and featured one of the most laughable twists — if you can even call it that — of recent memory. To its credit, The Gray Man would make for a far more interesting case, as de Armas killed it in her role and I wouldn’t be opposed to another adventure with her character, but for the love of God, the Russo brothers have to either hand the reins to someone else.
Look, the bottom line is, I won’t blame you for enjoying the thrill ride that The Gray Man aspires to be. After all, it features a brilliant cast and directors that kids under the age of 25 can name aside from Speilberg and Tarantino. But it’s a film that can’t decide if it wants to be James Bond, Ethan Hunt, or Vin Diesel, and there’s a reason that all three of those franchises work in their own ways.
And while the business side of it makes sense, it says a lot that Netflix is going to abandon making films like The Irishman, or “vanity projects,” in favor of popcorn-fests like The Adam Project and Red Notice. And it says even more that Netflix was bold enough to hand the keys of a film with three of the best and most popular names working in the industry to the Russo brothers of all people. Just imagine this film in the hands of a capable action director like David Leitch; oh, wait, Bullet Train comes out next month!
I’m not sure The Gray Man is the best justification for phasing out “vanity projects” if I’m Netflix, but perhaps this will be the cherry on top that establishes the Russo brothers as directors. I highly doubt it, though, because The Gray Man is somehow just as, if not more pitiful than Cherry and this time, there aren’t any portals to bail out the Russos in the third act.
Netflix will release The Gray Man in select theaters on July 15 and will release it on Netflix on July 22.