The Russo brothers are in an interesting place. The one-time producers for acclaimed but low-rated television comedies like Arrested Development and Community are now two of the biggest names in mainstream cinema with the highest grossing film ever (re-release doesn’t count, Avatar) and the second most commercial success in history behind only Steven Spielberg, who’s been making films since the 1970’s. Yet outside of Marvel films, which still comprise the bulk of their cinematic work, the brothers haven’t made much of an impact. Cherry, their first film after Avengers: Endgame, released on Apple+ to middling reviews and general indifference, partly because Apple+ isn’t as widely used as other streaming services such as Disney+ or Netflix.
Similarly, Netflix is in an interesting place. As the largest streaming service in the world, the one-time mail-in DVD rental company has practically become a utility as vital as water and electricity, especially during a time when there is still a virus spreading through public settings. Yet Netflix’s constant demand of new content has created a situation where even big-budget, event pictures by auteur filmmakers are a single-weekend curiosity. Further, a recent downturn in subscribers has moved Netflix’s production department from prestige films such as the beautiful Roma, the disappointing The Irishman, and last year’s best movie Don’t Look Up, and toward dozens of generic romantic comedies and action-comedies, starring everyone from A-list actors to that-person-from-that-thing, few of which are remembered longer than it takes for the film to play in the background while taking a long train ride or doing homework.
And if this introduction seems to be taking a long time to get anywhere it’s because the Russo brothers’ new Netflix film The Gray Man is not very interesting.
To be clear, The Gray Man is very much a big budget action spectacle – albeit one that you can watch on your phone – but please, please don’t watch movies on your phone, at least not the first time, have some respect for the artform – with all the explosions, gunfire, fight scenes, big name actors, beautiful camerawork, and exotic locations expected from the spy genre. It just doesn’t have much of anything else. The Russo brothers remain top-notch action directors, however without a decent script or interesting characters the film has all the impact and investment of bashing toys together. The Gray Man is what the MCU would be without any of the emotional attachment to its well known and well loved characters.
As most people know, quiet scenes are as important to an action film as fight scenes. Quiet scenes are where character is built, stakes are raised, and, most importantly, the audience has a chance to breathe. Without quiet scenes, breaks in the action, the audience goes numb to what’s happening on-screen. This fatigue sets in about halfway through The Gray Man in what is arguably the film’s largest action set piece, a capture that leads to a train chase through Prague. Despite several distinct phases in this single sequence and all the gunfire and explosions, there is no excitement, nor is there any reason for much of this action to happen. The film’s entire setup is that a CIA agent is doing something shady and our hero, Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) needs to expose that agent and save his handler (Billy Bob Thornton) and his handler’s niece (Julia Butters). That’s it. That’s the entire plot. We’re told at the start that Six was recruited out of prison to “kill bad guys” but beyond that he’s little more than the standard, stoic, glib (as Thornton calls him) modern action hero. He’s tough enough to kill any target, kind enough to avoid murdering children, and cool enough to banter with his enemies and fellow agents. There is a hint of something larger but an anti-climatic ending cuts any revelations short for a sequel the film hasn’t earned. In spy film terms, there is nothing special about The Gray Man. In Netflix terms, The Gray Man is Red Notice, itself a vapid, pointless film, with supped-up action and none of plot twists or charm.
Similar to the aforementioned Red Notice, much of The Gray Man‘s appeal is in seeing its actors. As the film’s protagonist, Gosling plays the same emotionless, generically cool agent character actors such as Clive Owen, Jeremy Renner, Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, and Gosling himself have played in dozens of previous films. He’s fine in the part, handling the fight choreography and fits of spy-standard resourcefulness well, but the character’s limited emotional range and reinforced plot armor prevent him from ever feeling endangered, even during an admittedly intense final showdown. Opposing Gosling throughout the film is Chris Evans who is by far the stand out in a smarmy, scenery-chewing performance. His douchy charisma and matching wardrobe elevates what is otherwise a typical nihilistic psychopath, or as they’re called in the real world, private military contractor. As in Knives Out, it’s plainly obvious that Evans relishes being an all-out bad guy, even one who spends more of his time sending faceless goons after the hero than he does fighting the hero. Minimal as Six and Hansen are, even less attention is given to Ana de Armas, fresh from her stellar showing in No Time to Die. Her character does in fact have a name, but knowing it requires reading the cast list. For personality, she’s an agent . . . and that’s it. Meanwhile, despite an action resume that includes Game of Thrones and being the only good part of Netflix/Marvel’s Iron Fist, Jessica Henwick is little more than a whiny middle manager complete with a Karen haircut and screaming “Do something!” It’s by no means a pressing issue but why cast two of the most attractive actresses in Hollywood and then hide them under soccer mom haircuts? Other actors such as Regé-Jean Page, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alfre Woodard are barely given enough screentime to warrant a mention, while Dhanush’s “lone wolf” character is introduced too late and among too much cannon fodder to feel important. No doubt he’ll be a major figure in the sequel the film shouldn’t have.
One thing I like to do when watching bad or unremarkable films (such as Red Notice or The Irishman) is imagine how to rearrange its individual parts into something more effective. The trouble is that no amount of mere tinkering with The Gray Man can make what’s on screen more engaging. The action scenes are as well made as possible with first class direction, stunt work, and fight choreography, and enough uniqueness to make them somewhat distinct. However everything else, from the pacing to the characters to the story, doesn’t offer enough material to suggest a way in which the film could be improved. There is simply no identity to work with. It’s all just so bland, so middle of the road, with bloodless torture and consequence-free destruction, that it’s almost impossible to identify one major problem, let alone one way to solve that problem. The pieces are there for a solid action film. Unfortunately those pieces are hollow. Perhaps the best description of the film comes from Evans himself: Boring.
The Gray Man is in an interesting place. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Joe Russo referred to movie theaters as being “elitist” compared to Netflix. In some ways, he’s right, especially during a time when there is still a virus causing death and permanent damage. Movie tickets are expensive, and as someone who lives in a country that limits the number of English films in theaters at one time and rarely gets anything that isn’t superhero or franchise-related, having movies premiere on Netflix is a pleasure. However, there is a lot to say about the theatre experience, even beyond the big screen and sound. Being in a place solely dedicated to watching a film lends a certain credibility and occasion to that film that watching at home lacks. In a theater the audience is required to focus on the film and nothing else, don’t talk, turn off your phone, and, at the very least, put on some pants. Where a Netflix film is one of a dozen pieces of “content” added in a month, a theatrical screening is a one-time experience, thus it is incumbent upon the filmmaker to make something the audience is willing to spend their money on. As the directors of the biggest, most successful film of all-time, Joe and Anthony Russo both clearly understand the responsibility a filmmaker has to their audience. Sadly, with The Gray Man they seem to have skirted that responsibility. This isn’t cinema. This is content.