The Gray Man sees Marvel favorites Anthony and Joe Russo return to the world of blockbuster movie-making. Huge stars, giant set pieces, even bigger title cards announcing each of the locations; it’s almost like they’re back in the MCU, for better and worse. Consider every kind of espionage narrative trope as part of a checklist and The Gray Man will likely cross it off at some point. But the re-tread of the expectations of the genre aren’t a total drag, since the charisma of its cast is what will keep your attention even as the movie bounces around to new locations and countries almost every five minutes. The pacing feels fine throughout, though it’s clear every character in the story is moving at video-game fast-travel speeds between shots.
In The Gray Man, Ryan Gosling plays a CIA operative known as Six, an agent from a small list of assets that do…well, whatever the movie needs them to do. Those interested in seeing Gosling reprise his role from The Nice Guys will see flavors of Holland March present, but one that has more of his wits about him and makes use of clever techniques and styles throughout his many fight scenes. Gosling’s presence as an actor and as a movie star for a major vehicle cannot be denied, especially as he manages to make action, humor, and drama work in a script that has a wildly bizarre tone and tremendous over-reliance on cell phone conversations (seriously, in the first 30 minutes, there are probably 12 phone calls). A great detail about the movie is how it compounds Gosling’s injuries throughout, leading to more and more hilarious groans from the actor as the hits keep coming.
Some slick direction persists throughout, and shoutout to the Russos for actually injecting some color into the movie, but for every cool thing that happens on-screen there are others that remain baffling. Though some action sequences are allowed to play out in camera, giving the audience a chance to really absorb what’s happening in the fight, others are cut to ribbons, showing off 12 frames of a shot before moving to another for 18 frames. It’s a deeply annoying style of editing in some of these moments and is headache-inducing, but the weirdest part is you can flip a coin before any sequence and that will decide if the editing is going to be comprehensible or not.
The action scenes that work really work, but especially when they actually try and squeeze a moment of character out of Gosling as it’s happening. A shootout in a Prague town square while he’s handcuffed to a bench, which morphs into an extensive set piece on a moving tram, might be the greatest singular piece of the movie. Gosling is allowed to breathe as an actor while also navigating us through the action of the scene itself. Imagine if every sequence managed to pull that off.
Gosling is flanked in the movie by a huge ensemble, one that includes Chris Evans as huge A-hole-with-a-wild-mustache Lloyd Hansen, delivering what might be his funniest performance ever; plus Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Julia Butters, Dhanush, Alfre Woodard, and Billy Bob Thornton. If it sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Sometimes the movie seems to forget how many plates it’s juggling in favor of showing you a cool trick with this other plate. The trouble with a cast this big and a breakneck pace that The Gray Man has is that so many of them have almost nothing to do. Page, the breakout from Bridgerton that is skyrocketing to stardom, mostly sits in chairs and at one point throws a coffee. It seems like a waste of a character, but The Gray Man makes no qualms about how it’s prepping a film franchise. Wanted more of that person? Sorry, gotta wait.
This is in large part the most glaring issue with The Gray Man; it’s designed as a doorway and not a completed room. It ties up some of its narrative threads mercifully, but from nearly the beginning, it’s setting up a franchise. Characters are referenced and not fully explored, planted as seeds to grow into something in movie #2, movie #3, prequel #1, anime spin-off #4, etc. In the original Star Wars, the end goal wasn’t creating a franchise, it was telling the story it had. The Gray Man’s story is setting up a new universe, which makes it feel like watching a giant TV show rather than a movie at times.
Ahead of its debut, it was touted that The Gray Man was the most expensive movie ever produced by Netflix. That may be true, and it seems like most of that went above the line, but it also draws a weird distinction within the film itself. The movie will go from one huge complete action scene with a giant explosion and practical stunts to one that tries to disguise its visual effects with smoke.The Gray Man feels like more disposable entertainment from the streamer that is eager only to brag about how many eyeballs saw something and not how many people actively enjoyed it enough to want more.
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