What kind of filmmakers are Anthony and Joe Russo when they aren’t making Marvel movies? As the directing duo behind the biggest and most profitable Avengers films (and most profitable blockbusters ever) the pair seem to have carte blanche to pursue their interests, and they’ve partnered with streamers who are happy to get out of their way and let them follow whatever muse they like. Their first post-Marvel film, Cherry, released on Apple TV Plus, applied their blockbuster sensibilities to a story that didn’t really need it: the opioid crisis. In that film, spectacle consumed its characters, weaving an empty story about a potent tragedy. Perhaps that wasn’t a fluke.
Now working with Netflix, the Russos have followed up with The Gray Man, an airport-thriller adaptation that also seems like a weird fit for them. It’s adapted from the first novel in Mark Greaney’s long-running series about Court Gentry, aka Sierra Six, the eponymous Gray Man. Ryan Gosling plays Gentry, a man the audience first meets in prison. In a prologue set years before the main plot, top CIA spook Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) recruits Gentry to kill whoever the CIA tells him to, no questions asked. In exchange, he gets out of prison. Flash forward to the present, and Gentry faces a delicious question that drives the plot into motion: How does a man with his job retire?
It’s baffling that two of the most commercially successful directors in Hollywood apparently cannot make a film as compelling as that question. This is not a critique of The Gray Man’s plot. While it’s rote, it mostly exists to support an efficient action movie. Action fans can probably call just about every major plot beat past the starting line, where Sierra Six refuses to make a kill shot because a kid is nearby. Instead, he takes down his target in messy hand-to-hand combat. This leads to a conversation where Six learns that he’s being sent after his fellow assassins. (The Sierra unit members work alone and do not know each other.) When he’s given an SD card with something his new boss at the CIA doesn’t want anyone to have, Six is forced to go rogue and maybe uncover a government conspiracy.
There isn’t a single original idea here, and that’s fine! The appeal of a film like The Gray Man lies in how more than what, as the cast and crew work in concert to execute exciting action sequences. Unfortunately, the Russos’ style, full of bombastic excess and barely funny quips, gets in their way. There are well-conceived sequences here — every fight scene is framed against the most compelling backdrop possible. There’s an early fight during a fireworks display, and a mid-movie scrap between Six and some heavily armed goons where all he has is a daytime road flare that outlines his movements in smoke, or a flashlight that illuminates one blow at a time. But viewers only get frustratingly limited windows to appreciate the eye-catching staging and, more importantly, the actors in it.
The Gray Man constantly escalates to the point where its performers become secondary to the action, instead of acting as its focus. Dizzying drone shots swooping over and under locations leave viewers adrift instead of grounded. Cuts to chaos and collateral damage surrounding central conflicts make the film feel more like a disaster epic than an action movie. And the stakes keep rising to the point where the characters become superhuman by default, as they survive exploding cargo planes and derailed high-speed trolleys with little more than a bandage and a quip to walk it off.
Realism isn’t necessarily the problem here; dissonance is. The Gray Man is a story about assassins who are, we’re told, the very best in the world. And yet over and over again, they are shown to be shitty at their jobs. They incite international incidents. They wage small wars in town squares. And they have a very hard time holding a small girl hostage.
This is made worse by the fact that many of them are portrayed by talented actors who have to play second fiddle to the carnage. Opposite Gosling is MCU (and Russo) alum Chris Evans as Lloyd Hansen, a freelance “sociopathic” assassin who Six’s handlers hire to lead the manhunt for him when he goes rogue. As Lloyd, Evans gets to dial things up to late-’90s levels of John Travolta-esque camp. That could make for an incredibly fun movie, if Evans and Gosling got to share any significant screen time. But frustratingly, for most of The Gray Man, Evans is in a control room overseeing other people’s attempts to kill Six, often ranting to other characters over the radio.
Similarly underutilized are Jessica Henwick (the secret best part of Netflix and Marvel’s maligned Iron Fist series) and Knives Out’s Ana de Armas. The latter is an operative who worked alongside Six and decides to help figure out why the CIA wants him dead. The former is the government minder meant to “officially” oversee Lloyd Hansen’s mission to kill Sierra Six, which ultimately means Lloyd gets to berate and overstep Henwick’s character, knowing she’ll take the fall if things go south. They’re both action stars in their own right, and while de Armas gets a couple of good fights, Henwick’s character feels like an afterthought in a film that should have engaged with both of them more. Instead, they just feel present.
Less in The Gray Man would’ve made for so much more. Anthony and Joe Russo garnered quiet acclaim early in their career by bringing an unusual level of flair and panache to quirky and quietly bombastic sitcoms like Community and Happy Endings. They used to be capable of spectacle in the service of character. But they catapulted to their current success by depicting casual catastrophe, which is less charming without a familiar stable of superheroes to bolster their work with fan affection. It’s even less charming when “casual catastrophe” is the best phrase to describe how their films feel.
The Gray Man premiers in theaters on Friday, July 15, and arrives on Netflix July 22.