The career of siblings/director duo Anthony and Joe Russo has been an unusual one. They made their name in television, with a couple of starry-but-middling movies to their credit in the 2000s, before they were tapped to make Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They were then given the keys to the MCU kingdom, helming Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and the biggest one of all, Avengers: Endgame.
After that, anything would be a comedown, and their first post-MCU effort, Cherry, was a bomb despite the presence of Tom Holland, aka Spider-Man. Now they’re back in the action sphere with The Gray Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Courtland Gentry, an ultra-skilled CIA dark operative. Released from jail in 2003 by Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) to work for the CIA as part of their secretive Sierra program, Courtland — known to most as Six — has spent almost 20 years doing the dirty work that the agency doesn’t officially acknowledge.
However, when his latest mission reveals information that agency higher-ups, including Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), want to remain hidden, Six must go on the run. Multiple assassins are sent after him, most notably Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a former agent turned mercenary. Six must rely on his superlative skills, as well as the occasional help of fellow rogue agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), to try to survive the never-ending onslaught.
While the Russo brothers were lauded for their work in the MCU, the abundance of CGI in those films made it a little unclear if the action scenes were fully a credit to them or the artists who made the impossible possible. In this film, there is no doubt that they have great chops when it comes to filming action, as the fights are intense and almost non-stop. Six has a lot of amazing escapes, and each one is a showcase for the filmmakers, actors, and stunt performers.
And it’s great that the action works so well, because it covers up some, but not all, of the storytelling flaws. Written by Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, the film is as convoluted as they get. For seemingly no other reason than to make it seem like a “real” spy movie, they set scenes in no fewer than 11 different countries, a breathless whirlwind that often spends only a minute or two in one place before whisking off to another.
While the characters and their relationships to each other stay relatively coherent, what each person wants and the goal of the movie as a whole becomes increasingly muddled. A side plot involving Fitzroy’s niece Claire (Julia Butters) comes out of nowhere and is given a level of import that’s way out of whack compared to the rest of the film. A MacGuffin involving stolen intel makes less and less sense as the movie goes along.
Gosling is an enigmatic Hollywood star, going back and forth between arthouse fare and mainstream films. He makes this role his own, going toe-to-toe with all-comers in the fight scenes and proving himself worthy as an action hero. Evans chews the scenery as the villain, allowing him to shed his Captain America do-gooder status. De Armas is done a little dirty, as her character is made to seem much weaker than her male counterparts, but she still lands a few good punches, both literally and figuratively.
The Gray Man is an obvious attempt at an action franchise for Netflix, especially since it’s based on a series that now features 11 books. If they can match the story with the action in future installments, they may have a bonafide hit on their hands.
The Gray Man is now playing in theaters; it debuts on Netflix on July 22.