Do you remember in high school when you and your friends sat around making up worse and worse action movie one-liners? You’d laugh at all the terrible puns, and see if you could come up with something truly Schwarzenegger-worthy. We were kings and queens and dreamers then, speaking countless screenplays into the night air fueled on nothing but Swedish Fish, Root Beer, and insomnia. Memories of it are just a sensation now, every word spoken lost into the ether. That’s a shame, not because of what time makes us lose, but because every detail, every terrible impression and excruciating half-joke we came up with, was light years better than the god damn nonsense bullshit excuse for a screenplay in “The Gray Man”. Just think of the millions we could’ve made if this is what’s getting greenlit. None of us thought of bringing a notebook! None of us thought, Hey, let’s record this tripe in case some future production company just splashes money onto shit people scribble on napkins, drop in a fountain, step on, and then turn into a screenplay by using Google Translate to fill in the blanks like frog DNA in a fricking dinosaur. Cause that’s the screenplay for “The Gray Man”. Every piece of dialogue is a barrage of one-liners that thinks it’s just the cleverest shit ever written, but isn’t self-aware enough to just be bad or edit itself into a pun. It’s like they took that line from “John Wick” where the Russian mafia boss explains how badass Keanu Reeves is and were like, “Yes, but what if entire movie words just these”. Well you did it. You god damn did it.
So I disliked it, right? Oh, but the explosions are so pretty. Make it through the first 40 minutes of hackneyed fucking dross and you’re like, “I really want to turn this off, not even Billy Bob Thornton can make this dialogue work”, but then you might notice a strange thing happen. It can only be described as magical, for what else but magic could give you the one thing you want most in life in that moment, and make it even better than you could have dreamed. That’s right: Everyone in this movie finally shuts the fuck up and just starts shooting each other.
Don’t get me wrong, there are two big action sequences in those first 40 minutes. They are terrible, so terrible that you might wonder what the goddamn point of this action movie is if it can’t even get words or action right? But then, I don’t know, someone came to their senses and stopped huffing the Swedish Fish and was like, “Oh wait, we’re the Russo Brothers, the guys in charge of the MCU, didn’t we know what we’re doing at some point”? And fucking behold, once you get your nose out of the Swedish Fish, you remember what a camera does. Do we want to swing it around wildly and cut away from the fight to highlight firework cannons being shot at the camera so we can’t see anything? Or do we want to feature the actual fight choreography? Oh shit, we’re out of firework cannons, guess we should try the other thing.
Jesus Christ. Fucking what. The first two sequences are so horribly, over-the-top edited, I thought that Ryan Gosling must’ve flunked the fight choreography so hard the only choice they had left was to cut around every movement and never show a full sequence of strikes. But nope, he does fine later. They just wanted to be “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever” for 40 minutes. Shaky-cam is not the problem here. Cutting one punch in for every two fireworks you show blasted in the audience’s face is. This approach is junked later, but even if you do ditch the awful aspects of your film a third of the way through, it still bears the question why you didn’t just do that earlier or edit or get a script doctor, or just reshoot or hell – I would have taken a “Star Wars” style text crawl.
Having mastered every other role, Ryan Gosling now embodies an off-the-books hitman with the energy of a wet shrug. How you sap this dude of charisma is beyond me, but they Dementor the fun out of him for like, the first hour-and-a-half. We do know he’s glib since we’re told in the first scene that he’s glib. Thanks for that, otherwise I wouldn’t have known. It just seems a waste to box such a dynamic actor into an itty-bitty cage, but hey, you do you.
He’s faced with an anything-goes intelligence contractor in the form of Captain America himself, a trashy, mustache-twirling Chris Evans. Evans gives it his all. He even makes some of the one liners work because he wags his tail so hard about it you’re just like, OK, fine, Chris, you can have this one, I’ll just pretend you’re doing a TikTok. As much as I love him and lobby people to pay attention to his non-Marvel career, Evans is not up to the against-type standard set by Daniel Craig.
It’s Ana de Armas who really stands out, perhaps the only one to overcome the dialogue and realize a character who’s more than a wafer-thin caricature. Her CIA field agent Dani is the spark of quality acting and actual timing the movie desperately needs to keep it from collapsing in on itself, and she comes off as the most badass of the bunch. If you’re looking for an action hero in this movie, she’s the one with an argument for a franchise.
Billy Bob Thornton is what you expect, which is to say Billy Bob Thornton starring Billy Bob Thornton brought to you by Billy Bob Thornton. Alfre Woodard breathes some fresh air into things for five minutes. Bollywood star Dhanush brings all the charisma Gosling forgot for two extremely memorable fight scenes. Rege-Jean Page uh, he’ll have more chances, possibly even with writers next time. Jessica Henwick plays a secondary villain, but really her job’s to read you all the other characters’ biographies because a hundred years of filmmaking apparently haven’t demonstrated properly how to fold that information into the story itself.
The overriding feeling I have from “The Gray Man” is that every aspect it incorporates is done far better elsewhere by something very recent. For all its wannabe Bourne, Bond, and Mission: Impossible trappings, “The Gray Man” is really just a gussied up “Commando”, with Gosling aiming his way toward Evans’s castle and the little girl he’s kidnapped.
Gosling’s connection with the girl in their pseudo father-daughter pairing? Virtually nonexistent and shoved on us in five minutes of ineffective flashback. It’s got nothing on last year’s “Kate” and the deeply impactful work Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Miku Martineau get done in between stellar fight scenes.
Whirligig fight choreo extravaganza? “The Princess” is far more effective, and its humor far more successful, even if it shows the seams of its budget.
Super-stylized mash of action genres with an A-list of stars? “Gunpowder Milkshake” embodies the action movie as pop art in the way “The Gray Man” embodies the action movie as wait-what-were-we-doing?
Smart action borrowing from the gun ballet lessons of “John Wick”? Well, I mean there’s “John Wick” if you want it cheese, chocolate, and wine, and there’s “Extraction” if it’s a burger or pizza kind of night.
Spycraft mixed in with effective, personally consequential action? The last pair of “Mission: Impossible” movies are legitimately great films.
For a minute, I thought “The Gray Man” was going to emulate some of Indonesia’s best action thrillers, such as “The Raid” films, the gory “The Night Comes for Us”, or the suffocating but utterly, utterly exquisite “Headshot”. Yet these are martial arts films, and not just films with martial arts in them; they’re films where a fight scene can carry as much beauty, plot, and emotional change as a well-written dialogue scene – but “The Gray Man” holds later set pieces that impress, not ones that communicate much of anything.
The chief argument for “The Gray Man” is its size and budget. Everything is bigger and louder. The first two action scenes are disasters, but after this, and after the characters mostly shut up and just let Ana de Armas handle all that word stuff that’s popular these days, the whole thing cleans up, gets its shit in order, stops caring about being anything other than “Commando”, and uses its bigness and loudness the way you were expecting from the beginning. It doesn’t surprise, but it does – eventually – satisfy.
Do I like it? I mean, I kind of dislike that I don’t. That doesn’t mean I like it; it just means it’s there. It’s like noticing a rock on the ground. Sure, there are rocks in the world that are pretty and that I might like, and there are rocks in the world where I pass by and think, “Eh, you could do better”. But most rocks I pass by without thinking too much about them, since they’re rocks. That’s how I feel about “The Gray Man”. It has some sparkly bits that draw you in, but after you realize it’s otherwise just a normal rock, you might think you spent way more time on it than it needed when there’s a neat, purple swirly one over yonder.
I like certain elements in “The Gray Man”. De Armas is the action hero this should have been about. Evans is having fun, even if it amounts to little more than a shtick. If its one strength is being big and loud, it has one of the most successfully big and loud action scenes I’ve ever seen (you’ll know it when you see it). If you’re a connoisseur of action movies, it’s worth a watch.
“The Gray Man” does an exemplary job of demonstrating just how hard it is to make spy films or write dialogue for them before it finally gives up and accepts its fate as an action movie.
Huge chunks of the first half needed to be edited out. The Russo Brothers should have known to cut action scenes that serve no purpose and fail to advance character or story in any way. Hell, there’s one fight scene where the supposedly practical characters acknowledge it doesn’t need to happen but since the movie needs it to happen, they just have it anyway. That’s fine if you’re “Hudson Hawk”, but this isn’t a meta treatment, or a film looking in on itself. It’s the writers thinking you don’t even want them to try, so why should they? The fight that follows is good, but…there are a lot of fight scenes out there that are good, many of them housed inside movies that do the work to justify their need.
The spycraft dialogue is atrocious. I can’t say this enough times. It’s fucking awful. Everyone just comes off as the stereotypical asshole jock in a coming-of-age movie. The film also keeps delving into the Russos’ superhero work before remembering it doesn’t include any superheroes. There are a few times where the hero hurtles toward a fatal injury and it’s just cut around. Suddenly he’s landed safely with no explanation. No stuntwork, no CGI excuse, just a bad edit. If you’re going to do that, you have to at least acknowledge the film is self-aware of this.
And yet…. There’s been a heat wave this week, and my brain feels like that PSA about how to fry eggs after doing drugs or whatever that was about. I’m just happy to sit in one place still enough to hope the heat doesn’t notice me, and if I can get both a hatewatch and a likewatch in on two hours time, then shit, I feel pretty productive.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to something more basic about our movie-watching experience. Like many complex human quandaries, Shakespeare put it best: a “Commando” by any other name is still as sweet.
You can watch “The Gray Man” on Netflix.
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