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Review: The Gray Man

July 15, 2022

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

How does Netflix take a $200 million budget, a couple of movie stars, and the directors behind some of the biggest movies of all time, and make something as bland as The Gray Man?

That’s the question audiences will be left with after watching this latest film from brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors behind Marvel’s smash hits Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, who have crafted a thoroughly mediocre and generic action flick that mostly feels like another forgettable piece of content for the streaming giant.

Adapted from the first in a series of novels by writer Mark Greaney, the film serves as a globe-trotting spy movie that takes its characters from Azerbaijan to Prague (aside from the stars, this is where much of the budget surely went). Ryan Gosling stars in the film as a covert CIA operative known as Sierra Six, working for handler Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), who recruited him out of prison in exchange for a commuted sentence. This is set up in the opening prologue that involves Fitzroy bribing him with watermelon bubble gum (yes, really) in one of the film’s many overly goofy and head-scratchingly ill-conceived dialogue exchanges.

Six is part of a covert group of mercenaries who are hired to take out targets and not supposed to ask questions. When it turns out that his latest target is none other than another member of his team, Six ends up in possession of classified intel that puts him on the run from former colleague Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), who wants them dead and is picking them off one by one. Gosling and Evans are joined by Ana de Armas as Dani Miranda, a fellow agent who assists Six in his survival. She has a few moments to kick ass (and wears a killer flowered suit in the pretty good opening sequence), but feels somewhat underused.

As we’ve seen from his previous collaborations with filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn, Shane Black and Damien Chazelle (or even his own directorial debut, Lost River) Gosling is a much more interesting performer than he is allowed to show off here. Gosling brings his naturally charismatic presence to the role, but the film uses him as an interchangeable action star. Evans grew out a sleaze-bag moustache for his villainous role, and it’s not quite long enough for him to twirl, but you get the idea of what he is going for with his campy, over the top performance.

Being released in theatres for a week before going to Netflix, which is how most people will see the film, The Gray Man is a massive action movie that is among the most expensive the streamer has ever made, yet it still manages to feel mostly dull and inconsequential. There are some okay action sequences, especially once the story moves to Prague for the last act, but it’s plagued by a rushed and convoluted plot, non-existent character development, and a weirdly smug tone that can’t decide if it wants to be taken seriously or not.

The screenplay, which was adapted by Joe Russo alongside Captain America scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, features banter that sounds like it was written by 12-year-olds trying to write cool, grown-up dialogue (I can’t really give examples without quoting the whole script, but you’ll know what I mean if you watch it). The constant quips and one-liners mostly induce groans and eye-rolls, and the characters also quote philosophers in what feels like a shameless attempt by the writers to try and sound, you know, smart.

Furthermore, the film doesn’t do anything interesting with its characters and leaves them feeling like cardboard cutouts, which is a shame given the talents of the actors involved. A flashback that tries to establish an emotional connection between Six and Fitzroy’s daughter Claire (Julia Butters) feels shoe-horned into the middle of the film like an afterthought, and the Russo brothers briefly attempt to introduce some heavier themes about childhood trauma (seriously) that are so underdeveloped they border on insulting.

The film features largely uninspired direction by the Russo brothers, who struggle somewhat outside the Marvel machine (this is a far cry from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which put them on the map). The whole thing has a muddy look to it, with some surprisingly shaky visual effects, including a plane jump sequence that features obvious CGI and feels like it is trying too hard to copy the Mission: Impossible films. Despite the limited theatrical run, this is pretty clearly a movie made to be watched on TV screens.

It simply doesn’t look like a movie that cost $200 million to make. For all intents and purposes, this could have been a formulaic Liam Neeson picture produced for a fraction of the budget and it probably would have looked about the same (by comparison, Neeson’s most recent vehicle Blacklight only cost $43 million to produce). The action sequences are not terrible, but the film is edited within an inch of its life, and has an over reliance on drone shots.

What we are left with is a film that feels so nakedly like a piece of streaming content that is counting purely on the names of its stars to bring in eyeballs. The film does give us some of what we expect in terms of action, and it may please undemanding audiences simply looking to spend two hours in front of the TV. In that regard, it’s hard to argue with The Gray Man as a mindless time-waster, and it’s carried by an attractive cast. But for something that cost a whopping $200 million and is meant to kickstart a franchise, you kinda expect something better and more memorable.

The Gray Man is now playing at selected theatres, including TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It will be available to stream on Netflix as of July 22nd.

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