Director(s): Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writer(s): Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas
When brother directors Anthony and Joe Russo were given the keys to direct what would become two of the biggest movies in terms of scope and box office that film has ever seen, they only had one pre-Marvel film under their belt: You, Me and Dupree. It’s impressive seeing the path these filmmakers took from a movie that barely made $100m worldwide to one that, at the time, had the record for the most money ever at the box office. All of this success, which stayed consistent over 4 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, had to mean that this wasn’t some fluke and that the directors really knew how to grasp story and substance in an emotional and moving way, right?
Well, the first Russo follow-up, Cherry, was an incredibly ambitious film filled with a good but miscast Tom Holland, and enough directing styles to question if these two had an original thought for any of the shots in the film. While this film wasn’t particularly good on many fronts – I will leave Tom Holland out of this because even if the film wasn’t good, he was committed – for their first project post-Marvel, one could chalk this up to just being overly ambitious.
Their newest film, The Gray Man, based on the book of the same name, tells the story of a covert CIA operation of global assassins. Six (Ryan Gosling), recruited by Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thorton), is the best of them and has garnered a reputation for his ruthless kills and ability to always follow through with a mission. After unknowingly taking out a former and fellow assassin by the name of Four, Six learns dark secrets that Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), the head of the organization, has been hiding. Carmichael then hires another assassin, one that doesn’t play by the rules – which is mentioned almost verbatim a number of times throughout the film – Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans). Not only are Six and partner Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) running for their lives trying to out the organization’s wrongdoings, but he must also rescue the kidnapped niece of Fitzroy, Claire (Julia Butters).
One would be led to believe that the pair of directors would be dipping their toes back into the space that they knew best, a mindless action extravaganza. They even went as far as to hire their primary MCU leading man, Chris Evans, and bring back the writers (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) that helped pen much of the MCU, including the 4 Russo films. Everything seemed as though the Russo’s could have finally worked their way back into the spotlight, but instead only managed a couple good scenes in an overall drab film.
The action scenes are well done, I can give them that, which makes sense given the fact that much of their MCU action sequences still stand up as some of the best. Even if there were enough drone shots to rival a Michael Bay film, the Russo’s at least have an understanding of how to capture the action in a way that is intense and electrifying. That being said, what happens in between these action set pieces is as overly convoluted and thinly written as it could be. Six has the most characterization of anyone, as they dive into his abusive past and why he is willing to kill, but aside from him, there is no characterization for anyone. None of these characters seem to have any sort of life or motives aside from the mission at hand. Dani is an interesting one because she almost seems to blindly follow Six no matter what, and the antagonist, Lloyd, only is interested in this entire thing because of how well-known Six’s legacy is to the masses.
When it comes to the actual performances, Chris Evans’ is the stand-out. His tenacity as the villain almost makes up for his horrid mustache and it looks like he is at least going for it in this movie. On the other hand, you have Ryan Gosling who I don’t think gave a bad performance, don’t get me wrong, but after the career shift Gosling had during the late 2010s, and the fact that he has something much more up his wheelhouse next year with Barbie, something like this feels almost beneath him as an actor. Gosling thrives in more comedic action, and while he was given most of the comedic lines – there aren’t that many in the first place – one could almost feel that Gosling was doing this solely for the check that was going to come from it.
With this lack of characterization or really any plot, The Gray Man amounts to nothing more than another generic Netflix action film. This one will certainly please viewers looking for “turn-your-brain-off” action, but don’t look beyond the highwire explosions and gunfights, because truly there isn’t much there. The Russo’s clearly haven’t been able to find their style in a post-MCU career, and should probably focus on taking smaller more intimate projects if they want to have a career filled with more meaning.
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.