The Russo Brothers spent the first 10 years their careers directing episodes of television, most notably 2 of my all time favorite comedies: Arrested Development & Community. The brilliance of their work on those shows caught the attention of Kevin Feige, who hired them to take over the Captain America franchise with great success. After 2 Cap films, Marvel gave the Russos the keys to finish the Infinity Saga and direct Avengers: Infinity War & Avengers: Endgame, the studios biggest releases to date. As it currently stands, those last 2 are the #2 and #5 highest grossing films of all time world wide.
From humble beginnings to the greatest of success, where did the Russo’s decide to take their talents post MCU? Well they first made a movie for Apple TV+ that you haven’t seen or haven’t heard of called Cherry, starring MCU alum Tom Holland. They’re back again with another direct to streaming movie starring one of their MCU muses: The Gray Man. So what’s the biggest difference between these 2 projects? About $160 Million on the production budget.
The Gray Man is infamously the most expensive film ever released by Netflix. With a reported budget of $200 million, this was Netflix’s big swing at starting a massive tentpole action franchise. A lot of that money went to the Russo’s and the many A-List stars they got to sign on for this manilla tale. Streamers have to overpay for these types of projects but for the most part you can tell that money really did go into everything on screen. This movie has way more world traveling espionage than even the 007 franchise and the same can be said for the amount of action scenes stuffed into it.
The Gray Man is adapted from the novel written by Mark Greaney. I’m frankly perplexed by that fact as there’s very minimal plot and a whole lotta shooting going on in this one. This is a very generic “CIA turns on one of their best agents while also trying to recapture an incriminating MacGuffin.” If you’ve seen any of the Mission: Impossible movies, you’ve seen this exact story done in a much more creative way. In fact, if you mix Mission: Impossible (1996) and John Wick 3 together while taking out the craft, at the bottom of the bowl you’ll find The Gray Man.
Netflix movies and shows have a tendency to look cheap, particularly with their green screen use. I’m happy to say in this movie I didn’t spot much of that. There are some luscious real life sets in this movie, the best being the glitzy opening club sequence. Where the film does stumble visually is with sequences where the Russo’s try to emulate the action they did using super powered heroes, but with some regular instead. There is a laughable sequence where our protagonist fights goons while falling out of a plane and it visually resembled VFX from early 2000’s superhero films. That same club sequence I mentioned earlier ends in a fight at the center of a fireworks ring. The hand to hand combat is cool but the actors are shrouded in some hysterically bad CGI smoke.
Getting the Bland Back Together
Ryan Gosling, one of my all time favorite actors, returns to movies (but not cinemas) after a nearly 5 year absence. As is always the case, even with rough material, Gosling oozes with charm and at least makes his character a little three dimensional; and boy is this material rough. No characters have any semblance of motivation throughout the film for the ludicrous things they do. Gosling plays Six, a former inmate living out his life sentence as a “gray man” working outside the law in the name of the CIA. After killing another gray man by assignment, he keeps a MacGuffin given to him before the targets passing. Six doesn’t turn in the item immediately, and therefore the evil government agency puts out a massive hit on their beloved golden agent.
Enter Chris Evans as Lloyd, the most maniacally sinister villain since Dr. Evil. Lloyd is a former agent himself who quit the service early in his tenure. The CIA recruit him as a mercenary to hunt down Six by any means necessary, and he sure does use that freely. Lloyd, who I will remind you is actively working WITH the CIA, openly murders countless individuals across multiple countries in a very small period of time with zero repercussions. Evans is hammed up to 12 here, having a blast with his ridiculous mustache and free will to murder every character that meets eye contact. Both of these beautiful actors have ridiculously stupid facial hair in this, but it’s still not as stupid as the story/script of this movie is. (For the record, I think Evans pulls the stache off better than Gosling rocks that horrid goatee)
Billy Bob Thornton is cast here as nothing but a plot device. Three actors who have been on absolute hot streaks are shamelessly cast in this to purely deliver exposition through cheesy dialogue; Ana de Armas, Rege-Jean Page, and Jessica Henwick. Henwick spends the entirety of the film as the eyes and ears for the CIA, literally watching Lloyd kill police officers and civilians. She occasionally chimes in just to state to the air that this is wrong, but proceeds to do LITERALLY NOTHING.
Outside of the horrible script, the biggest drag about The Gray Man is the overwhelming amount of action you get. The general rule for action movies is you need to have an action scene every 10-15 pages, but it’s like the Russo’s thought “what if we did that but every 3 pages instead for over 2 hours?” There are explosions, gunfights, country hopping and fisticuffs transpiring on such a constant basis that I completely lost interest. It was almost as if Six was literally beating the movie into my cranium.
This sounds like a harsh tear down, but I didn’t hate it all. There’s some inspiring imagery and action sequences, but it makes John Wick look like Hamlet in comparison from an intellectual mindset. With the budget and talent involved, I simply expected way more. It was announced today as I’m writing this review that Gosling & The Russo’s will return for a sequel along with a spinoff which is super preemptive. The Gray Man is a perfect title for this as it’s a blannnnnnnnnnnnddd action spy flick. I give it a 5 out of 10. (It’s so bland I couldn’t even think of a goofy metric to use this time for the verdict score)