Letterboxd Review: The Gray Man (2022)

That The Gray Man is the latest in the endless series of Netflix stay-at-home-blockbusters--disposable yet expensive vehicles that come to the streaming platform, get shoved down your throat non-stop via banner ads, star the biggest names in Hollywood, and disappear from public consciousness entirely within the span of three or four days--does the film no favors in terms of standing out. Adapting an airport paperback for bored dads into a big budget spy thriller is apparently too tall an order for the Marvel Cinematic Universe's proudest frontrunners, because The Gray Man rivals Amazon's Without Remorse as the most oddly weightless and dull movie in recent memory that features so many helicopter explosions, high-altitude escapes and shootouts, and bloody knife fights between CIA killers.

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and directed by the Russo brothers, the movie heavily implies that these fellas are incredibly uncomfortable outside their wheelhouse of smashing action figures together. The dialogue has that irritating quality of every single line consisting of snappy quips and rejoinders, and while there are tiny beats for our hero to decompress from his latest fight or escape--a place where one might give a little backstory or personality trait that might endear him to the audience--they are delivered so begrudgingly and impatiently. I feel like I'm supposed to already know every character and their motivation, like it would be a waste of time to establish anything outside the immediate reason for them to be shooting a gun or breaking a neck.

Structurally, it tries very hard to make a simple spy plot as complicated as possible with frequent location changes and an extended flashback smack in the middle. All accompanied by the same giant font cards seen in the team's Captain America and Avengers films. Gosling is a black ops ghost with no personality who gets a thumb drive containing dirt on all the CIA muckety-mucks, and Evans is the psycho they sic on him and his loyal handlers. Mayhem ensues. It's all very Tom Clancy...uh, the video games more so than the novels or movies. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to the Splinter Cell series, only without the emotional dexterity of a Michael Ironside voiceover. At no point is the extreme amount of violence, the shadowy political implications of it, or any of the personal turmoil of being an indentured murder monkey come into play. That would get in the way of all the, ahem, fun. 

Much like those previously mentioned Marvel films, The Gray Man never capitalizes on its plot's globe trotting to squeeze out any visual atmosphere or mood, as most of it was probably filmed in a parking lot with a green screen. You could have told me a scene taking place in Vienna or Berlin or Hong Kong was taking place in Vancouver, or Atlanta, or on a soundstage in London, or at a Best Buy in Indiana. I'd believe you. That's not to say the Russos don't attempt to stretch their legs with deep, shadowy lighting and half-crazed camera movements. They're trying very hard to be moody and cool, but mostly it's hard to see or follow. People leap through windows like they are made of tissue paper. Gunshots to the head are tossed off like Nerf darts. There's just no impact to any of it because the Russos are trying to move so quickly through every beat while covering it with smoke, frenetic edits and shaky camera shots. The most I can praise the action is that it looks very, very expensive. You cannot accuse this movie of looking cheap. I think just the sheer scale of destruction is supposed to impress us enough chiefly because there isn't a branded superhero attached to it.

Ryan Gosling gets the task of playing the type of square-jawed stoic action man that Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger used to play. He's...not the right fit for it. His performances are too interior, his voice is too disarmingly mumbled and casual. When his character simply has no interior, it's hard to buy him as a one-man wrecking ball. Now, meanwhile, Chris Evans is certainly the best part of the movie, rocking a Stupid Sexy Flanders© look and cackling like a 1997 John Travolta villain. It's fun to see him do something that isn't earnest and forthright, and he seems to be having a gas. Good for him. 

Supporting players are given very little to work with, and some make out better than others. Ana de Armas makes yet another case why she could easily headline her own gritty shoot 'em up, but it's frightening how little chemistry she has with Gosling here, considering how much they had playing a hologram Alexa and a cold robot detective only a few years ago. Julia Butters, who absolutely slayed in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, does what she can here as the requisite precocious teen hostage motivation device. It seems like a waste. And that's not even close to the waste of Billy Bob Thornton and Alfre Woodard, who collect their paychecks and shuffle away quietly. The closest scene the movie has to a compelling volley between actors involves Thornton being tortured by Evans, and because all the focus is on the grisly violence and how extreme it is, there isn't much to glean.

That's the most confounding thing about The Gray Man, is that there's a jarring tone discrepancy between the performances, the script, and the visuals. Is it a moody John Wick violent neo-noir? A glossy bombastic franchise starter? A throwback spy potboiler? The answer seems to be "yes, maybe, I dunno." Up to the moment a pop song kicks us into the end credits with...CGI pewter statues depicting all your favorite moments from the movie?! I don't even know what I'm supposed to be feeling, here!

How can such a by-the-numbers blueprint for a B-action movie, coupled with a giant budget and the participation of so many stratospheric stars, writers, and directors, all fresh(ish) off of the biggest blockbusters of all time, result in such a muddled and dull execution? It truly feels like a fake movie cooked up for a multi-episode arc of "Entourage," or something. Is this just Netflix and their algorithms run amok over how movies are made? Are all of their gigantic movies-of-the-week like this? I'm stupefied. 

Rating: ✰ 1/2

This review is a part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile, which includes reviews and movie lists not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from the book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.

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