The Russo Brothers’ Spy Thriller The Gray Man Isn’t Grueling, It’s Just Gruel

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The Russo Brothers’ Spy Thriller The Gray Man Isn’t Grueling, It’s Just Gruel

It’s hard to decide if naming a forgettable spy movie about an alias-only super-killer “The Gray Man” is low-hanging fruit or a self-aware attempt at setting expectations low. Longtime Marvel directors Anthony and Joe Russo have a track record more established by marketing than technical achievement, so assuming the muddy mediocrity associated with CG-filled frames carries over to Gray Men might not be the intention, but it’s certainly not incorrect. None of The Gray Man’s still-Bourne thrills are executed with the precise elegance of John Wick, the winking doggery of James Bond or the joyful craftsmanship of Mission: Impossible. Rather, its chaotic Grand Theft Auto filmmaking skates by with the sloppy sufficiency of its own protagonist. Loosely based on the Mark Greaney novel (and similarly hoping to kick off a franchise), The Gray Man proves that the Russo brothers don’t need superpowers to turn massive budgets into mush.

I say the adaptation, by Joe Russo and his MCU regulars Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is loose because it’s impossible for the book to have less plot than the film. CIA operative Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) goes rogue after learning Too Much. His ex-bosses sic murderous nutcase military contractor—sorry for the redundancy—Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) on him. There’s an important USB drive that could bring down the baddies if leaked to the press (a brightly naïve notion in 2022), an assortment of background characters and none of the book’s oil-based geopolitics, capitalist critique or moral ambiguity.

Six might kill people in The Gray Man as easily and sleepily as you might fix your morning coffee, but he’s a soft-hearted goody two-shoes who’s the Hollywood ideal of a killer you can root for. If you’re not convinced, an unbelievably silly flashback goes to great pains establishing that he’ll save any cat you need. (Another line establishes his nemesis as a literal cat-hater. Really!) Six hates innocent collateral, loves kids—like the niece (Julia Butters, either gratingly precocious or a sobbing sound effect) of his original handler (Billy Bob Thornton)—and always has a quip at the ready. But rest assured: He’s extremely talented at shooting, stabbing and strangling.

Yes, the Russos have found themselves the perfect protagonist: An inhumanly numb scab of a man who only speaks snark. The lone survivor of a program that frees prisoners if they agree to enter into black ops wetwork, Six limps through life with the same kind of bemused professionalism as all of Endgame’s Avengers. As dull as this is, Gosling excels at it. He grunts and sputters, holding his handsome breath to keep from reacting and using his high, quiet voice to undersell pain; it’s same kind of pathetic masculinity he weaponized in Drive and Looney Tuned in The Nice Guys. He’s good at a dry gag, physical or verbal, and is the best part of a film that doesn’t seem to know how lucky it is to have him.

But its barely-sketched lead is just one way that The Gray Man is more akin to the superhero smackdowns of the Russos’ MCU stint than their dismal post-Marvel drama Cherry. Cherry’s stylish vapidity had the strange misanthropy of filmmakers hellbent on being anti-Disney. The Gray Man shakes off that reactionary impulse and retreats back towards half-assed adequacy, where the misanthropy is the safe and bankable kind that just racks up a bullet-ridden body count. There are probably more words in the movie’s globetrotting title cards than in its hero’s dialogue, and Evans brings as much to his porn-stached heel-turn as to his milk-chugging Boy Scout Captain America. His Blackwater bully chews up Xbox Live trash talk and spits it out with far nastier effect than the boring CIA baddies (Regé-Jean Page and Jessica Henwick) that hired him. The film even does a disservice to its women and POC like a Marvel property! Ana de Armas has been cast as the kind of ass-kicking sidekick that the action-movie manual apparently demands, but she’s treated like a chauffeur. A random badass henchman (Dhanush) is reduced to an honorable foreigner. But most similar of all to their MCU work is the Russos’ continued distaste for legible filmmaking.

Intentionally obtuse camerawork documents Six’s adventures. The Russos will obscure a fight scene with anything: Fireworks, flare gun smoke, power outages, the early glare of dawn. A ridiculous freefall sequence looks, even when not compared to its exhilarating peer in Mission: Impossible—Fallout, like Spirit Airlines flushed a GoPro. It’d almost be impressive if you ever thought it was intentional. But you can tell the performers worked hard on their fight choreography, only to have it cut so erratically that you can’t help but think that the Russos are used to hiding the CG seams—or that they’re as ashamed of their action as they are of any sort of sincerity, subconsciously undercutting sequences that might make us feel something beyond the blank smirk one wears when typing out “haha.”

At the heart of it all is a wannabe maximalism that lacks the ability to pull it off and refuses to give into the silliness that style demands. It won’t or can’t get Fast & Furious nutty, instead valuing the façade of realism. But its budget is spent on artifice. There’s an annoying, repeated camera move that zips and tilts needlessly through the sky, through hallways, through city streets, for no reason other than to remind you that there is a camera, that this is a movie and that now you’re thinking about that more than what’s in front of you. What is meant to immerse us in the film’s reality is mere formal ostentation accomplishing the exact opposite. Instead, you’re already at a remove when trying to follow its ridiculous setpieces, like the mid-movie shootout with a hyper-militarized Prague police force that’s got a higher death toll than Normandy. It’s like a Call of Duty cutscene: An aimless ogling of firepower that ignores narrative objectives for sheer violence. Cops are fighting private military contractors, who were hired by Bad CIA agents in defiance of Good CIA agents, to kill the Burned CIA agent. No matter who wins, we lose. The scene rolls out RPGs, LMGs—everything a good FPS player could want, and it’s as easy on the eyes as a sentence full of initialisms.

The Gray Man is ostensibly gray because he’s caught between poles of morality and legality. But at that monochromatic in-between is the extreme end of the marketing spectrum, where CG critter-killing superheroes prepare their viewers for the violent dad-fantasies of Tom Clancy’s hard men. There’s very little ambiguity to this selling of simple-minded, moralized violence. Naturally, the Russos slot right in. Their messy filmmaking and messier politics collude to create a factory-issue assassin with a heart, adorned with none of the genre specialties that make his peers stand out. He’s not unwatchable, nor will he be the next big hit. He’s just enough to sustain two hours; just enough to keep the Russos going, their bland blockbusters all the more obvious when stripped of spandex. He’s not much more. Just Gray.

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writer: Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Wagner Moura, Dhanush, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfre Woodard, Regé-Jean Page, Julia Butters, Eme Ikwuakor, Scott Haze
Release Date: July 15, 2022 ; July 22, 2022 (Netflix)

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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