When Joe and Anthony Russo started directing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they felt like an odd choice for a world that already had films from directors like Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, and Shane Black. At the time, they were known for their work in comedy, having written and directed 2002’s Welcome to Collinwood, directed 2006’s You, Me and Dupree, and working on some of the best comedy series of the 2000s-2010s, like Arrested Development, Community, and Happy Endings. But the Russo brothers thrived in the MCU, directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War.
But ever since the Russo brothers walked away from the MCU (for now) with 2019’s Avengers Endgame—one of the highest-grossing films of all time, and the wrap-up for the first decade of the MCU—the brothers have still been stuck in superhero mode. Their 2021 adaptation of Cherry for Apple TV+, starring Tom Holland, told the story of a veteran with PTSD who becomes a drug addict, was too packed with over-the-top directing and questionable editing that undercut the intriguing tale being told. Now, with The Gray Man, Anthony and Joe Russo are back in the world of action with one of the most expensive films ever made by Netflix, and with this thriller spy film, the brothers Russo still seem to think they’re directing a superhero film.
The Gray Man trailer
Ryan Gosling stars as Court Gentry (aka Sierra Six), a CIA mercenary who discovers dark secrets about the agency he works for. On the run while trying to find out the truth, he is hunted by Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a psychopath with a trash ‘stache, who will stop at nothing to find his prey.
The screenplay by Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, and adapted from the book of the same name by Mark Greanery, is packed with plenty of spy movie clichés, from a tech MacGuffin to shady higher-ups keeping the real truth from their agents. Considering that the majority of the film is a spy vs. spy chase around the world, The Gray Man is surprisingly full of too much plot. For example, there’s an entire stretch about Court babysitting Claire Fitzroy (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Julia Butters), the daughter of Court’s handler Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). Not to mention, there are just too many supporting characters without much to do, like Regé-Jean Page’s Denny Carmichael, who hired Lloyd to take out Court, and mostly just seethes in the shadows, as well as Alfre Woodard and Shea Whigham, who are given shockingly little to do here. It’s clear that Netflix is hoping this will become a successful action franchise for them, but in trying to set up all these different threads and characters from the very beginning, it makes this deceptively simple story feel far too bloated at times.
While the summer is always prime time for big, dumb action films, The Gray Man doesn’t seem to know it’s a big, dumb action film. Henry Jackman’s score evokes the Mission: Impossible soundtrack, and for all its spy plodding and searching for answers, The Gray Man is really just as simple as one man trying to kill another. One would think this would at least lead to some solid action sequences, but the Russo brothers film this like a superhero film, with every fight packed with too much smoke and constant, absurd editing that makes The Gray Man lose all tension and excitement. The Russos almost treat Court and Lloyd like superheroes, fighting their way out of crashing airplanes and acing exploding grenades, while still being able to walk away. It’s as if the Russos want to have the action that the best spy films can craft, but without worrying about the believability and realism that makes those types of films effective. James Bond and Jason Bourne work because we believe this character is in real danger, and in The Gray Man, there’s never any fear for the safety of Court.
Similarly, Russo, Markus, and McFeely’s screenplay never gives the audience a reason to care about this mission or these characters. The Gray Man attempts to build the audience’s interest in Court through the aforementioned babysitting segment, but by that point, The Gray Man is simply stopping this action film to a halt in order to do the characters work the film should’ve already done. There’s no reason to care for Court, other than that Gosling is immediately likable in this role, especially compared to Evans’ maniac who is consistently threatening to murder a child.
Thankfully, the saving grace of The Gray Man comes in watching both Gosling and Evans have a ball in these roles. In his first movie role since 2018’s First Man, Gosling is able to be both a resilient badass spy, and an unbelievably charming figure, despite whatever generic spy sequence he’s stuck in. Gosling’s quiet humor is a great assist for this story, joking about the situation, and having a bit of fun playing off Ana de Armas’ Sierra spy, Dani Miranda (another character who deserves more time than she’s given here). Also excellent is Evans, going all-in as a villain with no rules. Evans is delightfully weird here, even though The Gray Man never lets Evans embrace just how truly insane Lloyd truly is.
But beyond these two endearing actors being able to gleefully chew the scenery, The Gray Man is mostly a collection of tired spy tropes, directed in a muddled and baffling way, that seemingly exists to set up what seems like will be a fairly unimaginative franchise. The Russo brothers have proven that they can transition from comedy to superhero film with competence, but now, if they want to work outside the world of superhero films, they need to once again transition into a mode that fits the stories they’re trying to tell.
Our score: 3/5
The Gray Man comes to Netflix on July 22.
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