This is quite possibly the most spectacular failure in the history of covert ops.
When a film tells on itself, it’s often worth listening. A spectacular failure might even be too generous of a way to describe Anthony and Joe Russo’s The Gray Man, a film so lazily compiled and poorly constructed that it’s often difficult to discern it as anything other than a $200 million vanity project packed wall to wall with indecipherable and obfuscated action all weakly imitating far better films. Failure itself even seems generous, as it implies that somewhere along the way was a measurable metric of missed success, and try as you might, it’s next to impossible to find anything in the midst of it all that seems to be any genuine attempt to create something worthwhile. It is a basal spy thriller with nothing to say and nothing to do, just bombastic action flooded with smoke and CGI ad nauseam until it peters out and ends unceremoniously.
The film’s cold open is perfectly indicative of the its one and only lane, rote and bland expository nonsense that pulls espionage buzzwords out of a hat to construct something that resembles a narrative just enough to trick you into thinking you’re watching a movie. Fundamentally, however, the narrative is entirely irrelevant. It’s merely a vehicle for the film’s turgid, bloated action sequences. A flimsily constructed protagonist (Ryan Gosling) with a mysterious background is recruited by an equally mysterious government operative, Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). His job will be to ‘kill bad guys,’ CIA rhetoric so dismissive and ambiguous that it may be the only thing that resembles realism in this entire film. After a hard cut to eighteen years later, it’s off to the races, Gosling’s “Sierra Six” now a highly trained special agent in the midst of a hit.
Nothing goes right, of course, because it can’t. The film has to generate conflict, it has to create a visibly black and white moral quandary in order to paint our protagonist – the government hitman – as a beacon of virtue. By skipping eighteen years of Six’s functionality and essentially never discussing it, the film snidely sidesteps any past steeped in what is in all likelihood morally dubious and ethically questionable government wetwork. Instead, the past we do get to see is one where he becomes the adopted fun uncle of Fitzroy’s daughter, so we get a tangible reason to root for him, and the quandary presented is that Six has discovered a drive full of vaguely defined information about the unit’s ‘secretly’ corrupt boss at the CIA. Of course, as rational viewers, we imagine we want corruption to be rooted out of the government, but to say it out loud feels like a lethal dose of acidic irony to imply that anything happening here would ever mean anything, and the latent hilarity behind the film’s sincere presentation of “We have to get this to the press” only adds to how exhaustingly impotent it is at interrogating any of its subject matter in a meaningful way.
It’s all background, though. The messy politics, incoherent ideological framework, and simplistic morality, just set dressing for the directors of the most successful ensemble action film of our lifetime to goof around and generate whatever they want with a bottomless well of funds. As the film flits from grand setpiece to grand setpiece, it only feels more and more like that – generated. Not only is every moment a cut and paste visual callback to a more cohesive action film, but most of those moments look like some sort of outdated videogame physics simulation; you tell the plane to fall out of the sky, tell the train to speed off the rails, tell the car to crash into the train, and just watch a bunch of indiscernible chaos unfold as your graphics card chugs to crank out a few stuttery frames. It’s the school of modern blockbuster action, taking the wrong notes from the right films and hoping it will turn to gold somewhere along the way.
Doug Liman’s energetic handheld camerawork combined with frantic editing crafted raw and impactful fights in The Bourne Identity (2002), but here the chaotic editing masks weak martial arts and poorly plotted action. Gareth Evans’ brutal nonstop hand to hand insanity and precise multi-man combat in The Raid (2010) is predicated on masterful choreography The Gray Man doesn’t come anywhere close to achieving, despite its seemingly earnest attempts. Even in the school of grand blockbuster action, master classes like Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) prove that not only do you have to appropriately escalate your action, but it has to be executed and firmly planted in reality, something this film eschews in favor of CGI covered in copious amounts of smoke and fog to mask the poorly rendered edges of it all. The end result is visual sludge that doesn’t care to muster any form of coherent choreography and covers it all up with clutter and editing, the result nigh unwatchable.
It’s just remarkably empty at the end of it all. Chris Evans offers an incredibly unconvincing performance as the film’s ‘villain’ Lloyd Hansen, who is described throughout as a complete psychopath but never sells the idea of that in any tangible way beyond his vaguely flippant attitude in general towards human life (a trait nearly every character shares), and his willingness to kidnap and potentially kill children. By the time the central narrative wraps up it’s easy to have completely forgotten why any of it matters or how we got here. Abuse is distressingly correlated as a net positive, the CIA sweep it all under the rug in a scene that would read as satire were it not done with such stone cold sincerity, and it all ends with a snarky comment perfectly indicative of how every big budget film’s quippy dialogue has been written since 2008. Unlike the film’s complete misunderstanding of the myth of Sisyphus – there is no possibility that any of this ever reaches the top. It will, and does, continue to roll all the way back down to rock bottom. By the same coin, I’m quite positive we’ll see another $200 million going right to rolling back up the same impossible slope.