Growing up through the ’90s and the 2000s meant watching films featuring two of the most prominent actors of that time, duking it out until the flesh on their bodies was barely hanging off their bones (mostly metaphorically), and your screen was about to melt because of the scalding tension. We are talking about “U.S. Marshals,” “The Fugitive,” “Cape Fear,” “The Jackal,” “Heat,” “Hard Boiled,” “Face/Off,” “War” (2007 one), “The Departed,” “Die Hard” and “The Untouchables.” Movies from the last decade that have managed to emulate this style of storytelling are “The Night Comes For Us,” “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” “War” (2019), and “Master.” So, you can understand why “The Gray Man” can seem like a film tailor-made for someone who has devoured films from this sub-genre for sustenance and is a fan of Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana De Armas, Dhanush, and practically the rest of the cast and crew involved in the film.
I am here to inform you that “The Gray Man” doesn’t just disappoint on so many levels, but it is truly one of the worst movies of all time. That last part can seem like an overstatement. But when you take the budget, the technology, and the talent into consideration, it’ll start to seem like an understatement. Anyway, the movie is directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. It’s written by Joe, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, and is based on Mark Greaney’s novel. We follow Sierra Six (Gosling), a felon who was recruited by the CIA’s Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) for a black ops program. In the present day, Six and Dani (Armas) are tasked by Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) and Suzanne (Jessica Henwick) to kill Dining Car/Sierra Four (Callan Mulvey). Six goes off the script after he learns about the CIA’s dubious side. So, Carmichael sends Lloyd (Evans), an unhinged private security contractor, after Six to get him, dead or alive.
As you can see, the story doesn’t make much sense. To be honest, it doesn’t have to. It’s a classic throwback to action extravaganzas from the ’80s, the ’90s, and the 2000s. And it is the nonsensicality of the plot that creates the platform for crafting relatable characters, engaging interactions, and action set-pieces that you’ll feel in your bones. “The Gray Man” gets two of those three aspects absolutely wrong, and one out of them temporarily right. Let’s start with characters. In an attempt to make Lloyd, Six, Dani, Carmichael, or Suzanne seem cool, the Russo Brothers turn them into pretentious douchebags. It is the kind of cool that is neither inspirational nor awesome. It’s what we call “try-hard” or “wannabe.” There are no moments to ground them so that you can feel what’s beneath each of these characters’ facades. There is no introspection or retrospection. Why? Because the Russos are too busy crafting action sequences. That, too, the ugliest action sequences I’ve ever seen.
“The Matrix,” “Serbuan Maut,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Rurouni Kenshin,” “Mission: Impossible-Fallout,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Drunken Master II,” “John Wick,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Spider-Man 2”, and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” are landmark action films, period. They have set an example regarding how set pieces can be crafted around the story, the characters, the budget, the tone, the runtime, and, most importantly, the actors in question. Anthony and Joe Russo essentially take the lessons that these movies have imparted on the world of entertainment and throw them out of the window. Not to show how they don’t need it because they are better. But to expose their ineptitude. There’s not a single coherent, well-edited, well-framed, well-composed, well-choreographed, well-acted, well-conceived, well-executed, properly color-graded action sequence in this action film. My heart goes out to the crew who definitely had to work a lot and risk their lives only to then see the product made out of their blood, sweat, and tears presented so messily.
Since we are talking about ugly things, let’s talk about the character designs. What happened here? You have Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana De Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Henwick, Dhanush, Alfre Woodard, Regé-Jean Page, Wagner Moura, i.e., some of the most beautiful people on planet Earth, and all of them look hideous. How is that possible? If you go back and look at any action flick from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and the early 2000s, you’ll notice how great the actors look. Even when they are battered and bruised, they seem appealing and moist. But after that, in an attempt to be realistic or meta or for some other nonsense reason, it seems like we purposefully started to make actors look ugly. Why? There’s literally no need in the story for them to look bad. So why are you messing with the hair, the make-up, the costume design, heck, even the color-grading of their skin tones? Why is it so dry? Why is it so uninspiring? Why?
Anyway, the one thing that the Russos and Co. seem to get right in “The Gray Man” are the character interactions. Sierra Six, Lloyd, Dani, Fitzroy, Suzanne, Carmichael, and Claire (Julia Butters) have their own rhythms. The banter between all of them flows well enough. Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans seem to be having a lot of fun with it. But after the first 20-or-so minutes, even that begins to flatline because they just hit a wall. They forget to elevate it, give it some depth, or maybe spice it up with some interesting character revelations. Things liven up at the one-hour mark when Gosling acts opposite the great Alfre Woodard. A simple, teasing touch of the hand reveals so much more about their dynamic than the mountains of expository dialogue ever can. However, that’s also the moment where the realization hits you that there’s one more hour of this slog left. And none of the actors get a moment to shine so that they can do something, anything, to salvage this film.
“The Gray Man” is a sad affair. As a fan of Ryan Gosling, as a fan of Ana De Armas, as a fan of Dhanush, as a fan of action cinema, this is sad. It’s tough to truly explain the layer upon layer of disgust, anger, and utter disappointment I’m feeling after watching the film. Because it seems like every single aspect of it is a cruel experiment being conducted by the Russos to see how badly they can do everything and get away with it. Everything from the script to the cinematography, the editing, the production design, the acting, the character design, the action choreography, the special effects, and the VFX are not even close to the proverbial mark. But the Russos have Marvel history behind them, the stars have their star-power, and then there’s the accessibility and re-watchability that comes with Netflix. So, who needs craft, passion, and talent? Well, I do, and I say that “The Gray Man” will fall terribly short of the expectations of any one who craves for some sensibility and authenticity.