THB # 187: The Gray Man
The Russo Brothers have boxed themselves in.
They mastered a form for Marvel that worked rather brilliantly for Marvel. Their Infinity War/Endgame combo of Avengers movies met a very high bar of making a coherent, exciting, emotional 5.5 hour story out of a decade of Marvel stories that never before connected in quite that way.
But here is the problem… the magic trick they pulled off was particular to that piece of material or, I am guessing, other pieces of material in which the characters are deeply established before the movie that closes out a much longer story.
What I have seen in Cherry - the brothers’ first post-Marvel film for AppleTV+ - as well as in Netflix’s new The Gray Man is that they have an intense desire to use every tool they have developed at Marvel on these stories that are not pre-established nearly well enough to handle this set of tools.
Cherry, the better of their 2 post-Marvel movie, is the tale of a young man who becomes a lover, a soldier, a junkie, and a bank robber. It is 1970s kind of material. But instead of just doing a solid job of shooting, letting us watch the excellent actors perform a compelling script, The Russos overwhelm the material with visual stunts, small to epic. It made an interesting juxtaposition, since you don’t see dramas with so much style… but an imperfect movie as a result as well.
The Gray Man is a very different piece of material. James Bond, Bourne, action movies with The Rock, Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, etc, etc, etc are the precedents that it emulates at its core.
I’m not mad about that. And I really could not care less how much Netflix spent on the film.
The first thing that is striking about The Gray Man, aside from the size of its sets, is the darkness in which cinematographer Stephen F. Windon leaves all the talent. This is not his signature. He is not Gordon Willis (and Willis never left his talent in the dark like this, fwiw). It feels forced and mistaken, as we don’t know these characters. Yes, we know Ryan Gosling and Billy Bob Thornton and even Ana de Armas… but we don’t know their characters here. And not being able to see them in the dark kills the desperately needed character intimacy, even if it looks cool.
The opening sequence is classic “agent who is ready to get out gets pulled in,” then he doesn’t want “collateral damage,” so he break the rules and even though he achieves the goal of the mission, he is now on the outside looking in.
The space the Russos set this sequence in is very impressive. But it is so big and elaborate that there is no intimacy possible. And none attempted, really. Wide shots fight with too-close-to-see-the-action close-ups over and over.
This is where the superhero problem comes in… we, as an audience, know those superheroes and what they have been capable of doing. So we only need the smallest hint of what might come in a few shots to anticipate and get excited for the action beat and then there is a chance for a visual topper.
In this film, we don’t have that history. So we are inundated with action shots that don’t connect emotionally in any way. We can’t anticipate them. We can’t measure them. A gun being fired isn’t the same thing as a blast from Iron Man’s repulsors. Firing machine guns into crowds mean nothing if you have no relationship with the crowd or some chance of a character shielding the crowd with some superpower.
The Gray Man sometimes took me to Shang-Chi, as they share assaults on a big downtown space and a showdown on public transportation. But what Destin Daniel Cretton did so much better in his film was to keep it clean and simple. There are the wide frames of the fast-moving bus or the danger of being on the outside of a big glass building… but with his lesser known Marvel characters, he stuck with those characters more than with the space. And so the audience was always connected. The big action added to their situation, not the other way around.
All the mayhem in The Gray Man is bloodless… kind of. Deadly weapons are being used frivolously in large crowds often. But unless a character has a name, the physical damage is never acknowledged. It is an action movie, but it’s not a superhero movie where the earth is under attack from faceless aliens.
All that is left to do, for the audience, is to admire the action sequences exclusively in their own context. And even then, they are giant and complicated… but not terribly unique and we never, ever know where we are in the space. Even when there is a character stuck in the center of a space with guns in every direction, the filmmakers don’t really slow down enough for us to appreciate the survival skills involved.
These guys must have seen the great Shaw Bros movies of the 70s and understood the pleasures of a lithe character using an object to which he is stuck to his advantage, like a dancer. Hell, one of the sequences that they are best known for is Captain America fighting his way out of an elevator filled with bad guys with big guns.
But this overkill continues through the entire movie, until the final fight. (no spoilers here). The only other exception is a very brief connection to the always-connected Alfre Woodard… which involves a gag that is diminished by the choice to repeat it later in the film… DAMN IT!
Many critics will not forgive a story structure like this, just writing it off. I do not write it off. Happy to suspend my disbelief. But if you are going to do the cliche, you need to do it really well, surprise often enough, and feature actors that break the cliche. Gosling, Thronton, and Woodard fit the mold of having bigger personalities than the norm, but really aren’t given much of a chance. Winks and winces and eyebrows… Woodard’s vocal mastery. If they had a bit more time, they could have changed the energy.
Start to finish, one gets the sense that The Russos don’t trust their excellent actors enough to just rely on them to tell the story. Maybe that is unfair and they just thought their directing was cooler than the acting or (problematic) script. They are making foie gras from start to finish, shoving rich food down the neck of this goose until the audience feels like it is going to explode in frustration.
It was unusual to see this amount of technique added to a serious drama, in the case of Cherry. Here, it’s what you expect. But what really makes action work is character work… the audience’s vested interest.
This is the kind of movie that sets its focus for an action sequence, then loads in 3 or 4 or more sets of action groups to attack. So you shoot out the space from one side, then throw bombs from another, then have an individual assault, then have the bad guys confronted by the good guys in smaller space, then rinse and repeat one more time. The space never seems to be reduced to rubble. Dead bodies are not seen. Certainly not blood. And then there is a car chase to the next location of conflict.
The performances are fine. Gosling doesn’t seem to be ambushing the movie here like he so often did with big movies in his early adult acting years. He is unstoppably charming. But you get the feeling he is holding back his real passionate energy. His character is one you wouldn’t mind seeing in another movie… even if this one bored you. As long as it’s a better movie.
Chris Evans is all happy to be chewing the scenery as the villain, with his extreme haircut and porn star mustache. But after listening to him say crazy shit for an hour, I was bored by the character. Because he has no boundaries, he is just the same well-worn joke and over and over. At least give him a side purpose other than a check!
I hate to ask for another cliche, but the hero/villain relationship didn’t in any way begin to get close to an idea like Craig and Bardem in Skyfall, in which they shared history as men who did the same job. This is more like a showdown between freelancers, one of whom listens to jazz and the other of whom gets angry when his date orders lobster.
Ana de Armas, who was so great in No Time To Die, is a functional cypher with blow-up-doll lips here. And that is in spite of her being set up as a bad ass. Her character doesn’t seem to have a clear set of goals. And The Russos do a really bad job of using her beauty. Maybe that was the point, somehow. But the way she is dressed and the light being so dim, all you really see are those shiny, red lips shining underneath that bad haircut. I’m not suggesting that she has to be a Bond girl here… but if you aren’t going to reduce her to that cliche, you need to write her in a lot more detail than she gets here. Or make her more effective.
There is a sequence, for instance, when she drives. Superstar driving skills. But I don’t recall the movie, even for an instant, letting her own this thing that she probably does better than any of the action hero guys in the movie. You can extrapolate, as you see the car do all this great stuff. But what makes those moments great is seeing the choices in the driver’s eye and the idea that it is mad in the eyes of the passenger. Not in this movie.
The biggest disappointment is Regé-Jean Page, who plays the insider bad guy in the film. The part is underwritten and he never leaves a board room. I never really believed for a second that he managed to rise to the top of the CIA (or whatever state org it is) by 35 and is already covering up a major screw-up from years earlier, trying to save his career. A lot of verbal sharp elbows. But no sign of evil mastermind.
Even worse, as written, but not as disappointing, is Jessica Henwick’s sidekick to Page who goes with wherever the tides take her. I like the idea of strong female characters in these movies, but they need to be fully fleshed out or they are just more fodder. The role is not small, but the meaning of it is. She just kinda adds an expositional twist as needed. Never really motivated.
Julia Butters, from Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, must have been trying to call Quentin for rewrites when she read her character, who hasn’t changed much since DeSouza wrote her 37 years ago for Commando. (I’m sure there was some variation of this precocious female child before… but that one, with then-tomboy beauty Alyssa Milano is the earliest one that comes to mind.)
Dhanush and Wagner Moura get some scenery to chew. Fine. But the history of those side characters has offered better versions of the same. (The lighting is especially unkind to Dhanush.)
And Billy Bob Thornton seems to be fighting to be seen past his facial hair a lot of the time. It’s a nice performance, but again… terribly underwritten and loaded with platitudes.
The Gray Man feels like a really expensive art kit you got at Christmas. All the pieces are there to make something amazing. But you are so committed to using every single piece that was in the box, the final outcome can’t possibly have the focus to make it a good piece of art. You see that some kids take the same box and only use a few of the pieces and make magic.
Both great art and high-quality commercial junk have focus and clear intent. Great artists know how to kill their darlings and give detail to everything they keep… then let the audience define the greatness.
The Russos have all the skills. The problem is, they use all the skills. If they did half of everything they can do, their non-Marvel movies would be doubly good… or if you want me to do the math… good, maybe really, really good.
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