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The Gray Man Review: Spy Vs. Spy

EDITORS' RATING: 6/10
Pros
  • The cast is great
  • The action sequences pack plenty of spectacle
  • The plot features plenty of satisfying spy-movie twists and turns
Cons
  • The action feels undercut by visual choices
  • Much of the dialogue is formulaic
  • Too many different visual elements make for a jarring viewing experience

Though their career has showcased a versatility that's led them into the realms of acclaimed TV comedy and crime thrillers, Joe and Anthony Russo are best known to global audiences for spectacle. For better or worse, no matter what they do with the rest of their body of work, they will always be the guys who gave us the two-part finale to Marvel Studios' "Infinity Saga," and the tarmac clash at the core of "Captain America: Civil War." For the average moviegoer, they are Big Movie Guys, now and forever.

So it makes sense that Netflix would want to recruit the Russos — and their Marvel screenwriting partners Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely — for "The Gray Man," the streamer's latest attempt to launch an action cinema franchise that could be the streaming equivalent of Universal's "Fast Saga" or MGM's Bond films. It also makes sense that the Russos would be drawn to "The Gray Man" as a way to leverage their public reputation into a slightly different kind of filmmaking. Removed from the CG-laden battlefields of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the duo makes a clear attempt to apply their spectacle-laden history to a more grounded, human story while also taking the opportunity to jet across the globe for what might be Netflix's most expensive film ever.

The question, after all of that, is whether or not it paid off. Does "The Gray Man" capitalize on the Russos' cinematic past while also granting them a new blockbuster future? Does the star-packed cast deliver the kind of charm and energy required to carry a movie of this scope forward into franchise territory? Does the team that carried so much weight at Marvel still have what it takes to go this big in another genre?

The answers to these questions don't necessarily come easy. Though it's an enjoyable ride packed with movie star swagger, "The Gray Man" is a noticeably rocky road, and makes you wonder if the Russos can ever carry the same magic to the screen without the sparkle of Marvel's stable of heroes in their corner.

In the gray

The "gray man" of the title is Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling), an incarcerated criminal who's recruited in the early 2000s to join Sierra, a secretive government program that recruits criminals to serve as spies and assassins for off-the-books operations (think "Suicide Squad" with a little less superpowered mayhem). Nearly two decades later, Gentry is an internationally infamous operative known as "Sierra Six," who's deadly, efficient, and very good at staying hidden, working "in the gray" between the regulated CIA and the world of freelance criminals.

Those skills all come in handy when an operation in Thailand leaves him with a piece of secret CIA intel he was never meant to have, intel that points to a certain higher-up within the agency (Regé-Jean Page) as a shadowy criminal mastermind with a laundry list of sins. With that intel in his possession, Six finds himself a wanted man with a crazed, fellow infamous assassin named Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) on his trail. It's a game of international cat and mouse, made more complicated by Hansen's willingness to exploit any advantage he can gain against Six, including the gray man's mentor (Billy Bob Thornton) and the mentor's ailing niece (Julia Butters).

Adapted by the Russos and Markus and McFeely from Mark Greaney's series-launching novel of the same name, "The Gray Man" is packed with tropes and situations any longtime spy movie fan will recognize. You've got the deadly operative with a secret heart of gold, the villainous outsider willing to work beyond any agency's rules and regulations, the attractive fellow agent (Ana De Armas) willing to stick her neck out for our hero, and of course, plenty of double crosses, left turns, and gun battles as Six realizes every assassin and bounty hunter in the world has been called in to bring him down. The presence of these tropes is not a bad thing, particularly when they're delivered well and filtered through the presence of formidable actors. It's all in the execution, and it's there that "The Gray Man" encounters some difficulty.

A messy mission

On a pure plot level, "The Gray Man" is an action director's dream, a globe-trotting adventure film that breaks out into fight scenes and gun battles every few minutes and packs in no shortage of squibs, explosives, and cannon fodder stunt performers along the way. It's an opportunity for a grand showcase of every action movie trick in the book, and the Russos are clearly having a ball throwing just about everything they can think of on the screen. There's a sense of exuberance in "The Gray Man" that carries it forward in even its roughest moments, a feeling that we're watching two boys play with the world's most expensive toys, and that adds to the film's overall sense of fun.

Of course, some of those toys end up doing the film a disservice. Removed from the relatively unified style of MCU films, the Russos feel unmoored and unfocused, often at times when it counts the most to make "The Gray Man" land. Fight choreography that was clearly carefully crafted by the stunt team is often left obscured in a haze of smoke, neon, or darkness, combined with somewhat frustrating editing that limits the visceral intensity the sequences were aiming for. Drone shots that zip through the frame in a frenzy seem to come from nowhere with jarring frequency, ripping you away from characters and out of the moment despite a clear intention to convey both intensity and a sense of geography. That sense of throwing everything at this film ultimately robs it of a sense of visual unity, giving key sequences a disjointed feeling that leaves you off kilter and detached from the heart of the story.

The good news, though, is that the Russos got honest-to-goodness stars to lead this film, and even in its weakest moments they manage to land quite a bit of what they set out to achieve. Gosling works the mysterious stranger magic he showcased in "Drive" to great effect, and combines it with a hint of the misanthropic dark comedy he deployed in "The Nice Guys." Evans is plainly having a blast being the bad guy, trash 'stache and all, and De Armas gets to take some of the action chops she showed in "No Time to Die" and expand them into a meatier if sometimes unforgiving role. There's a sense throughout the film that, even if the cast isn't enjoying every minute of it, they're at least very good at looking like they did, and that helps the whole story immensely.

So, will "The Gray Man" launch a bona fide action powerhouse at Netflix? Have the Russos succeeded in putting their blockbuster jet fuel into another franchise? It's too early to tell, and naturally, it depends more on Netflix's mythic algorithm than on actual quality. Happily, though, despite its missteps — and there are quite a few scattered throughout this film — "The Gray Man" succeeds as two hours of action movie explosiveness, driven by an engaging cast and a sense of spectacle that, while not as fine-tuned as we might like, is still offering plenty of bang for your buck... or your two hours on the couch.

'The Gray Man' hits Netflix on Friday, July 22.