The Gray Man, at times, promises to be an enjoyable movie. At other times, it reveals itself to be a competent action flick. But, in the end, it is nothing but a sloppy tediously entertaining action flick, too cowardly to do anything more and too ashamed to embrace its genre.
Directed by the Russo brothers, Joe and Anthony, The Gray Man is an action movie that has action and some well-choreographed fights. But all of it is lost amidst a collage of swooping drone cameras, higgledy-piggledy editing, and an inability to commit to a visual tone.
Cleverly, the Russo brothers have stacked The Gray Man with an all-star cast whose charisma and charm all but fireman carry the film. The star wattage almost hides the swiss-cheese styled script by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Joe Russo, but eventually, it all wears thin. Based on a book by Mark Greaney, there are moments of banter that come close to witty. But this is in large part due to how the actors play the scene.
Had The Gray Man not had its star power, it would be even more forgettable than it already is. Unfortunately, despite the charisma and guile of the cast, the film feels fractured. The Russo brothers struggle to maintain any sense of connectivity from one scene to the next. It’s like watching a season of a television show edited together all wrong into one jumbled movie.
In another movie, in another time, this movie may well have starred Charles Bronson or Michael Dudikoff. Stars who were no strangers to paper-thin scripts and could effortlessly carry their preposterous movies to their preposterous conclusions.
Gosling plays the troubled loner CIA operative called Six. He is a graduate of the Sierra program headed up by a mysterious man Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thorton), in which convicts are turned into CIA assassins. These agents exist in the “gray.”
The Gray Man is one of those movies where a character discovers that the shadowy secret organization that forced them to become a trained killer might be more nefarious than initially thought. But, then, a former agent Sierra Four (Callan Mulvey), gives Six a microchip with evidence that his current boss Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page), might be coloring even more outside the lines than usual. Cue an intercontinental chase in which Denny and his associates attempt to kill Six and retrieve the “sensitive information.”
Evans plays Denny’s college friend, a sociopath in the private sector, Loyd Hansen. Evans is a perfect contrast to Gosling’s stoic minimalistic performance. A smarmy a-hole in his crisp dress slacks and loafers, Lloyd looks like a Lloyd, and it’s clear Evans is having a ball, playing a man so unhinged even the US government doesn’t want him until it’s time to clean up their messes.
On the face of it, this is a movie I am prone to love. But the Russos are no Sam Firstenberg or J. Lee Thompson. Instead, The Gray Man is mired by the film’s attempts at visual brashness. Except, the Russo brothers and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon lack the confidence to pull it off with any degree of consistency. At times we can feel the Russos and Windon attempting to channel Michael Bay’s kinetic and manic energy.
But they don’t have the ego to pull off the Bayhem aesthetic. Bay’s over-the-top visuals were hit and miss when he did them, but at least when he missed, it was sincere. When the Russos and Windon miss, it comes off as try-hard cinema, an attempt to mimic what they’ve seen without the intuition and ability to replicate it.
Yet, for every time I would grow weary with the drone aerial acrobatics that did little to add to the energy of the scene, I would be delighted by the appearance of Jessica Henwick as Denny’s number 2, Suzanne. Or by the appearance of Julia Butters as Claire, Donald’s niece. Butters played the child star Trudi Frazer in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in which she damn near walked away with the movie. Sadly, she is given no such opportunity here.
Through it all, there is Ryan Gosling. Rock steady and terse, he limps his way through every scene, his exterior hard as granite while constantly on the verge of tears, always ready with a quip. He’s good here, but nowhere in The Gray Man is a scene in which I could understand why he chose to do the movie. It is not a lazy performance, no one is phoning it in, but The Gray Man is a movie where a documentary about the actors having lunch together would provide more insight than the movie itself.
The script never gives any of the actors anything to gnaw on. There are times when the dialogue isn’t asinine and borders on being quotable. But like everything else in The Gray Man, it is ephemeral. While it’s happening, it is enjoyable. However, seconds later, you struggle to recall what happened.
Though Evan’s delivery of the line “I was shot in the ass, Suzanne,” remains one of the film’s highlights. Along with an action sequence involving a tram that is so good, it almost makes sitting through the movie worth it. But the Russo brothers, along with Markus and McFeely, are obsessed with squandering the audience’s goodwill.
A problem with a movie like The Gray Man is that when they have such talent as Billy Bob Thorton, I’m left wondering how much more interesting the movie would have been if he had written the film. Would it have been better? Maybe, maybe not. But it would most assuredly not have been filled with as much pedestrian dialogue.
Early in the film, I was shocked by how colorful everything looked. Set in Bangkok, it is a rare scene in which the Russos and Windon nail the marriage of aesthetics and mood. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s also where we meet Ana de Armas as CIA agent Dani. De Armas is wearing what is ostensibly the coolest costume in the movie. A white suit with floral patterns, it’s an outfit that stands out least of all because de Armas is wearing it.
De Armas’s role in The Gray Man is not insubstantial, yet her role is inconsequential. The Russos, along with Markus and McFeely, come dangerously close to wasting de Armas by giving her precious little to do.
Don’t even get me started with how little they utilized Alfre Woodard’s Cahill. Yes, you read that right. The Gray Man has Alfre Woodard and does jack all with her.
All of this could be forgiven if the movie was consistently fun. But saying that The Gray Man is sporadically entertaining feels as if I’m stretching the definition of sporadic. Though, I must admit that a needle drop in the middle of the film surprised me simply because it is not an overused pop song. It’s catchy, weirdly works, and is another example of squandered potential. Sure enough, true to form, the novelty wears off because the Russos proceed to play it every chance they get.
Even when The Gray Man tries to hint at deeper themes, it reveals its cynical shallowness. For example, a character called Lone Wolf (Dhanush), an Indian mercenary who works for Lloyd, realizes he is on the wrong side. After a brutal fight with de Armas’s Dani, he calls a truce. “These are not honorable people.”
A line that’s meant to show us that there is still honor among thieves. But to throw your lot in with a known homicidal maniac like Lloyd, not to mention a cadre of mercenaries with few moral scruples, tells me you’re more a naive walnut. It’s more than a little hard to believe Lone Wolf has only now begun to realize that the CIA and mercenary sociopaths are not “honorable.”
The cast attempts to bring glimpses of melancholy and remorse to the surface, but those moments are squashed by Windon’s ceaseless camera and the Russo brothers’ crass directing. Ultimately, The Gray Man is a drab movie that kills time. Yet, it misuses its runtime, so it feels less like it has merely killed some time and more as if it stole it.
Images courtesy of Netflix
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