‘The Gray Man’ Is Not a Real Movie
Everyone involved understands this
Just putting this out there: Joe and Anthony Russo are not filmmakers. The brothers — best known for helming Avengers: Endgame — have just released their latest business venture, The Gray Man, on Netflix. To say they directed it would be a questionable assertion, at least in the traditional cinematic sense. Directed like a VP of Finance might direct a project to implement a new accounting system, perhaps. To watch The Gray Man is to experience true artlessness, a vision of cinema as pure product, not just from the point of view of the studio that bankrolled it, but from the supposed filmmakers themselves.
The duo recently shared some of their motivating principles in a mind-numbing interview with The Hollywood Reporter, posing in expensive casual wear around their downtown Los Angeles offices, which they have funded by making “movies that 10-year-olds are weeping over and begging to go see.” They discuss learning from their early mentor Steven Soderbergh about his old (and not exactly successful) “one for you, one for them” philosophy of filmmaking, which they seem to have interpreted as something more like paying it forward. The Brothers Russo did, after all, help produce the acclaimed A24 hit Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, so credit where it’s due. Asked about their involvement in that film, Joe Russo says in the most tech-brain possible terms, “We were the seed capital,” describing the Daniels’ film as “highly experimental” and having “a level of absurdism married to emotion that I hadn’t seen in a while.” Which is why they thought, “if we could help them calibrate it for a slightly wider audience, there could be something really explosive there.” To be fair, that’s just their role as producers, literally the business side. Surely they don’t think about the films they direct themselves in the same terms?
“We make movies like The Gray Man so that we can help the Daniels make Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Joe explains. “You can use business-focused content to support more personal projects.” You see, The Gray Man is business-focused content. That’s not me saying it. One half of the duo who made the thing did. It’s generally a good idea to approach criticism of a work on its own terms, taking its aspirations at face value and judging accordingly. So let’s dispense with the idea, for the sake of this review, that The Gray Man is any kind of work of art. It’s a movie, technically, 24 frames per second and all that. Even the Russos acknowledge it as such. But creative expression doesn’t appear to be their purpose, so it really wouldn’t be fair to hold it to that standard.
So what’s The Gray Man about? Well, it’s based on a novel that has Lee Child’s endorsement on the cover, so you know it’s good. It stars Ryan Gosling as a mercenary for the CIA, codename Sierra Six, whose character attributes include big muscles, sarcastic quips, being hot, and having a heart of gold. While on a mission to assassinate someone for a surely good reason, he comes up against another assassin who in his dying moments hands Sierra Six a usb stick that contains some of the agency’s dirty secrets: namely, that they assassinate people, and not always for good reasons! And so, Sierra Six — or just Six as everyone calls him — goes on the run from another assassin played by Chris Evans (main attributes: sarcastic quips, being hot, having a mustache) and his army of yet more assassins, all while teaming up with a female assassin played by Ana de Armas (main attributes: being slightly annoyed with the quips, and being a hot lady) and trying to rescue Billy Bob Thornton (hot, no notes) and his precocious young daughter.
Along the way, there are huge, absurd fight scenes obscured by pink smoke, gray smoke, white smoke, and other kinds of smoke, all set in expensive locales and on crashing jets and derailing streetcars. The budget of the film was reportedly $200 million, making it one of the priciest accompaniments to laundry folding Netflix has yet produced. The money is evident on the screen, not because it looks great or has excellent production design, but because it was shot in four or five countries, has scenes set in massive ballrooms and castles and stuff like that, and features a boatload of CGI-enhanced action that makes it feel more Captain America than Bourne.
Anthony Russo says of The Gray Man in the THR interview, “This is big cinema. We made it for a theater. That’s how we shot it, how we styled it and, on a technical level, how we supported it.” This is not particularly evident at a craft level outside of those big sets and computer generated chaos. Shot-to-shot, the movie has all the finesse of a direct-to-video action movie. And despite Anthony’s claim to theatrical ambition, his more honest brother doesn’t actually think too highly of theaters. “A thing to remember, too, is it’s an elitist notion to be able to go to a theater. It’s very fucking expensive,” he explains. “So, this idea that was created — that we hang on to — that the theater is a sacred space, is bullshit. And it rejects the idea of allowing everyone in under the tent.” On the populist virtues of digital streaming distribution, Joe notes that, with Netflix, subscribers “can get 40 stories for the cost of one story.” I wonder how many stories could’ve been made for the cost of producing The Gray Man.
Because I too am a man of the people, I didn’t see The Gray Man on the big screen during its weeklong run in a few independent cinemas, but watched it on my smudgy laptop screen. I totally believe it was made by people who think the notion of the cinema as a sacred space is elitist and bullshit. It’s bland, it’s joyless, it’s ugly, it’s weightless, it’s surprisingly incomprehensible, and I had mostly forgotten its particulars about five minutes after the credits rolled. This is a movie that features two separate scenes of an older mentor blowing themselves up in order to kill the baddies chasing our beloved hero, so we’re not exactly talking about the best and brightest here. But none of that is important. The real question is, is The Gray Man good business-focused content? Netflix probably isn’t going to be honest with us about the financial success of their algorithmically attuned new product. Several minutes of it will surely be watched by something like 100 million people around the world, and this will be called a blockbuster, and we’ll be asked to take Netflix at their word even as their subscription numbers stagnate and their employees are made redundant and they shrink their global production slate.
In that THR interview, Joe addresses the current troubles Netflix has been facing. “They still make billions of dollars,” he accurately points out. “By the way, it’s OK for a company that was flush with cash during the tech spec boom to now be challenged to reconsider its model. And at some point, they have to start moving into what we’re doing — larger IP that can be turned into games and merchandising to build ancillary revenue and build legacy wealth.” Thanks for laying it all out, Joe! So let’s unpack that. The Gray Man is unlikely to be turned into a video game, and you’re probably not going to see many Sierra Six lunchboxes or action figures. Sequels might happen, but it’s not clear how Netflix squeezes any ancillary revenue out of the movie when they won’t even give it a physical media release, so building legacy wealth doesn’t seem to be in the cards for this property either. If I were a Netflix investor, staring down the streaming debut of the company’s new $200 million project on the same weekend Jordan Peele’s third feature cleans up at the box office on a budget of under $70 million... well, I’m not a business guy (you can tell by the fact that I chose freelance writing for a career), but I’d probably start thinking about selling my stocks.
Corey Atad is a writer based in Toronto. His work has appeared at Esquire, Hazlitt and The Baffler and he has an unhealthy obsession with Air Bud.