Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo || Produced by: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Mike Larocca, Chris Castaldi
Screenplay by: Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely || Starring: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Dhanush, Wagner Moura, Julia Butters, Alfre Woodard, Billy Bob Thornton
Music by: Henry Jackman || Cinematography: Stephen F. Windon || Edited by: Jeff Groth, Pietro Scalia || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 129 minutes
Ever since their ascension to the top of the Hollywood studio system with their successful direction of multiple Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, 2008-2019) installments (The Winter Soldier , Civil War , Infinity War , Endgame ), Anthony and Joe Russo have transitioned to producing, writing, and/or directing the types of diverse, mid-budgeted genre films that Marvel and its contemporary blockbuster brethren have largely displaced from the theatrical market since at least the early 2010s (e.g. Mosul , Extraction , Cherry , Everything, Everywhere, All at Once ). Most of those works have been streaming exclusives, which makes sense given the relative creative freedom endemic to online media platforms and the Russos’ particular irreverence for the traditional theatrical distribution model.
Given Netflix’s recent controversies and the Russo Bros.’ high profile as two of the most profitable filmmakers in history, their collaboration feels natural in regards to the Russos’ most recent project and Netflix Original Film, The Gray Man. An obvious homage to classical spy thrillers like the Bond (1962-), Bourne (2002, 2004, 2007), and Mission: Impossible (1996-2024) series, The Gray Man’s globe-trotting espionage-adventure is one of the most expensive (~$200 million) features ever greenlit by the streaming platform, and their most obvious attempt to establish a viable franchise intellectual property (IP; see also Bright , Triple Frontier , Red Notice , The Adam Project ) outside of long-format television series (e.g. Orange is the New Black [2013-2019], Stranger Things [2016-], Squid Game [2021-]). Sporting a who’s-who cast of today’s most recognizable stars, The Gray Man is either a winner of a throwback action flick with outstanding production values or the latest example of a bloated Hollywood mess, only this time for the online, not theatrical market.
Let’s start with the good: The Gray Man’s aforementioned A-list cast (Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, and Chris Evans, among others, as the snarky lead, female lead, and mustache-twirling main villain, respectively) produce great chemistry, funny one-liners, and overall memorable portrayals of traditional action movie archetypes. As shallow as most of their characterizations are, the film at least tries for genuine relationships between most of them; the film does not lack for personality when its supporting characters are brought to life by Wagner Moura, Dhanush, Billy Bob Thorton, Regé-Jean Page, et al. At least the film’s alleged massive budget was not wasted on its stars nor its acting direction.
Another positive aspect about The Gray Man for which that budget paid is its action set-pieces, at least to a certain point. The computer generated imagery (CGI) used for certain establishing shots and explosions is convincing (this ain’t no Baahubali [2015, 2017] or Wandering Earth ), though most of the extensive on-location photography dominates the film’s international scenery. The Gray Man’s diverse stuntwork, action choreography, and general athleticism shine the brightest in its 2nd Act centerpiece in Prague, which sees an unarmed Gosling handcuffed to a bench for most of it in a creative twist. Relative to the rest of the movie’s violence, this particular sequence flows well thanks to cause-and-effect logic, inventive character choices, and smart screenwriting.
The reason The Gray Man’s biggest and best set-piece stands out so much, however, is that most of the rest of the action filmmaking is a letdown compared to some of the Russo’s best MCU work, as well as their more recent producer credits. For one, most of the action feels censored given its lack of blood squibs and graphic content, a longstanding, general pet-peeve of mine with respect to mainstream blockbusters, and defies explanation given the lack of family-friendly restraints at Netflix. Much of the action is also edited in such a way that the flow of each sequence feels slow or obscures the impact of violent punctuations (e.g. lethal gunshots, stabbings, head trauma, etc.), which is frustrating given how well choreographed the hand-to-hand combat, shootouts, and vehicular mayhem are.
To that end, The Gray Man’s overall structural editing is problematic as well; the opening prologue and several brief flashbacks detailing Gosling’s backstory could’ve gone, while a longer flashback that establishes his and costar Julia Butters’ relationship should’ve been placed elsewhere. The first act of the movie starts and stops like a powerful but under-maintenanced engine, intermittently fun, yet often slow or awkwardly paced; then that aforementioned extended Prague centerpiece jolts the narrative with a burst of energy that lasts through an effective three-way fistfight between Dhanush, de Armas, and Gosling; but the story stumbles through its final set-piece that (1) lacks the escalation of the Prague showdown, (2) sees Dhanush’s minor villain give up mid-fight for no reason at all, and (3) concludes with a contrived brawl between Evans and Gosling that makes no sense given the geography of the sequence.
In the end, I must conclude The Gray Man, an otherwise competent, good-looking espionage thriller with personality, is undone by bad editing within the majority of its action scenes and across the bulk of its thankfully unindulgent 129-minute runtime. I have major problems with both the movie’s overall pace and the structure of various flashbacks relative to its plentiful action scenes, many of which needed to be excised to enhance the flow of the movie, to say nothing of the movie’s inexplicable dearth of bloody, graphic violence. The Gray Man has got heart and real production values, but its action is too inconsistent to recommend to genre junkies like me and its overall story too uneven to pass to general audiences. Netflix may have found a viable franchise here in the long run, but I argue the Russo Bros.’ execution is a major step down from their previous Hollywood high-concept movies.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: One of my most anticipated streaming titles of this year is now one of the most disappointing cinephile experiences of the past several — not a terrible viewing by any means, but a significant underutilization of a great cast, stunts, locations, and a massive budget. Top to bottom, The Gray Man, while entertaining in fits and starts, is less than the sum of its parts.
— However… the Russos showcase their directorial prowess in the excellent Prague centerpiece and the entire cast give memorable performances.
—> ON THE FENCE
? Why did Jessica Henwick shoot Evans when it was obvious Gosling was going to put him to sleep anyway?