The Gray Man is Netflix’s latest $200 million boondoggle, a plea for your time and your subscriber dollars that only partially justifies its existence. Co-written by Joe Russo, who also directs with his brother Anthony, and Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus (the co-writers of the Captain America movies and Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame), The Gray Man is a semi-slick adaptation of Mark Greaney’s spy novel of the same name starring Ryan Gosling as the titular “gray man”, a CIA assassin called “Sierra Six”. Six lands in hot water right off the bat when an assassination results in a public shootout and an exchange of potentially damaging information. Now Six is on the run from his own agency and a corrupt CIA agent whose name never stuck played by Regé-Jean Page, who sends a “sociopathic” assassin named Lloyd (Chris Evans, having a ball in full douchebag mode) after him to retrieve the damning data drive and kill Six. All of this is established cleanly and efficiently while also doing a big shootout scene—solid action filmmaking all the way around.
The first half of The Gray Man is quite good. Gosling is halfway into comedy mode, working his reserved charm and half-smirk, but the longer The Gray Man goes on, and it goes on a little too long, the more it drags until it becomes inert. Unfortunately, no one is allowed to have fun except Gosling and Evans. Ana de Armas is wasted in a thankless support role as a CIA agent stranded in the cold with Six, ditto for Page and Billy Bob Thornton, who can be very fun in movies like this, but has nothing to do except scowl. Julia Butters fares better as The Endangered Child Six is trying to rescue for reasons, which is mostly down to how charming Butters is, and how easy is her chemistry with Gosling. Also, Jessica Henwick does pretty well with her thankless support role, at least communicating the hopeless doubling down of a morally compromised person. Also, Tamil star Dhanush pops for the brief time he’s on screen, but he has little chance to make a difference in the increasingly dour tone of The Gray Man.
The Russos have made some of the biggest movies in the world over the last decade, and that’s f-cked with their creative identities a little. At heart, they’re great directors of actors who can stage an action scene, but what they really excel at isn’t the action itself, it’s how the action is used to relate back to the characters. That first action scene, for instance, tells us everything we need to know about Six and Page’s characters, and the stakes of the story, with clear, (mostly) well-shot action beats. Any time the action relates to a character beat (which usually involves Six and The Child, though Dhanush has a good moment in the finale), the action has a little zing and freshness. But when it comes to “point A to B” sequences, The Gray Man becomes bland cinematic noise washing over the viewer and loses the verve that initially bolsters it.
Also, there are so many pointless drone shots. Hats off to the drone pilots (Johnny Schaer, Michael Blizzard, and Cameron Fitzmaurice) for some tightly executed sequences, but we’re in the infancy of drone shots being useful to visual storytelling. Sometimes they are beautiful, sometimes they are informative to the story, but they are never beautiful AND informative. Filmmakers haven’t figured out the cinematic language of the drone shot yet, so all drone shots do is make for dizzying, often distracting sequences that add nothing to the film. It’s like when everyone got excited about “Snorricam” shots before figuring out when and how they’re most narratively useful.
The Gray Man is just passable enough to entertain for a couple hours, though you will likely forget everything but Chris Evans’ delightful douchebag performance (even that, though, does not eclipse his work as Hugh Ransome Drysdale). This is a perfect encapsulation of where Netflix is at as a movie studio right now, as well as where the Russo Brothers are as filmmakers post-Marvel. Which is to say: no one knows who they are or what they’re doing except for the movie stars on screen. The movie stars have it covered. THEY know exactly what they’re doing, and they almost make everyone else look like they have a clue, too.
The Gray Man is now streaming on Netflix.