Netflix’s The Gray Man is an ultimately inoffensive but overly simplistic spy thriller that sees The Russo Brothers in a state of creative limbo.
Since the release of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, the Russo Brothers have been on a bit of a journey to answer the elusive question of what to do next. After Endgame was Apple TV’s Cherry, which told the story of an ex-soldier and drug addict who robs banks to get by in their troubled life. It was a very intense departure for the duo who made their feature film career in comic books. Despite some praise for the lead performance by Tom Holland, it was a film that ultimately fell by the wayside due to its lacklustre reception from critics. Of course, it wasn’t enough to deter them from continuing to make their mark in the industry and now, one year later, the Russo Brothers are back with Netflix’s The Gray Man. An action spy thriller that shows that the Russos are, for better or worse, back to basics.
The film follows Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling). After many years in a cell, Six is recruited to be a CIA operative that operates in the shadows and performs special assignments while also being 100% disposable at any point by the organisation he works for. During a seemingly ordinary job, Sierra Six is given encrypted information that leads to him going on the run from his former allies and new enemies across the globe. One of which is Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) who uses his sociopathic ways to take down Six no matter what.
After a four-year hiatus, Ryan Gosling returns to acting with a lead role that seems to play out almost like a greatest hits compilation of his career. The first half of The Gray Man has the actor channelling the familiar energy he brought to films like Drive and Blade Runner 2049 with this cold exterior that helps his character commit the actions that need to be done. The character of Sierra Six is trapped in a world of bureaucracy and the idea that his place in the world is ready to be forgotten about at any moment. To those in the CIA, he’s still a criminal and isn’t taking away that label from himself any time soon. After nearly 20 years on the job, there’s a certain tiredness and cynical nature to Six as he commits job after job that Gosling admittedly shows off pretty well throughout the film. Operating in the gray for as long as he has means his place in the world is one of experience and the mentality that all of the action surrounding him all boils down to just an average weekday when all is said and done. Of course, this isn’t necessarily the case.
The character of Lloyd Hansen, in a way, is the opposite of what Gosling brings to the table in The Gray Man. Chris Evans enters the film with a character that’s a complete sociopath from the outset and delivers a certain manic energy that on paper seems ripe for potential. Although it’s clear that Evans is having the time of his life in this role as he wisecracks in gleefully disturbing ways, the actor can’t help but feel like he’s in a different movie entirely, and this is where the major problem of The Gray Man begins to leak through.
From the outset, The Gray Man feels like a blend of just about every major action movie you’ve seen before. There are shades of just about everything here, from the Jason Bourne series to Mission: Impossible, to the point where a lot of this can’t help but feel like it lacks a form of any concrete identity. At the same time, this is a film that also struggles to figure out what exactly it’s aiming for in regards to tone. The beginning of The Gray Man is moody and grey, with a visual palette that seems to be emulating the works of Michael Mann to admittedly great effect. However, the second half loses much of this identity to become more of a standard action movie with quips to boot. The character of Sierra Six enters the film as a moody and quiet killer and ends up being almost a complete joke of what he was just two hours before as the film reaches its conclusion. Although Lloyd Hansen admittedly stays stagnant as a character throughout, he can’t help but feel like a character from a later draft being thrown into an earlier one with no real thought as to how this could clash with the rest of the film.
Quite frankly, a lot of The Gray Man seems pretty thoughtless. The film further complicates its plotline by introducing the character of Claire Fitzroy (Julia Butters), a young girl who is taken care of by Sierra Six and lives with a heart condition. While posing as the heart of the film, the character of Claire is largely disposable and feels unnecessary when compared to what else The Gray Man is juggling narratively. Many plot points and ideas are consistently thrown at the viewer throughout its runtime and only half of them really amount to anything substantial when all is said and done.
For all of its shortcomings, where The Gray Man does shine however is in the filmmaking that the Russos bring behind the camera. A sequence set in Bangkok is a particular highlight with gorgeous nighttime visuals and the use of drone cameras leads to some really stunning sweeping shots throughout its runtime. There’s no doubt that the Russo Brothers know how to use a camera, but cracks are beginning to form around their eye for visuals on a creative level.
Cherry spelt a creative departure for the directors that is largely absent in The Gray Man. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can’t help but make this film feel a little gray (no pun intended) when evaluating all of its parts. In no way is The Gray Man a bad film, but it’s hard to call it a good one either. Instead, it’s a film that exists in the most inoffensive way it can. There are redeeming qualities here, but they function merely as small pieces to the film’s decaying puzzle.
The Gray Man is an inoffensive action thriller from The Russo Brothers that gets by its many shortcomings with a solid breakneck pace and enough confidence on the directing front. However, as Netflix continues to grow larger and larger in terms of the budgets it will give to feature films, The Gray Man exists as a textbook example of how bigger and simpler doesn’t always mean better.
The Gray Man is now available to watch theatrically in the US, and will be released globally on Netflix on July 22, 2022.