Mid-way through the two-hour run of Russo Brothers' latest big-budget action film The Gray Man, I felt there was something missing.
There were explosions, gunfights, action, and even funny dialogue but it felt incomplete. And then it hit me, for the last half hour, I had been subconsciously waiting to hear the iconic Mission: Impossible theme. For that's essentially what The Gray Man is – MI minus the charm of Tom Cruise and any iconic moments. This thrill-a-minute ride is popcorn entertainment but a slightly muffled one which fails to live up to its predecessors in the genre or do justice to its stellar cast.
The Gray Man, based on a bestselling novel of the same name by Mark Greaney, follows the infamous Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling), a CIA mercenary who has turned his back on the Agency. Consequently, he is now being hunted by his unhinged former colleague Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) and almost every mercenary in the world (a truly diverse cast including Dhanush and Wagner Moura).
With a reported budget of $200 million, it is the most expensive Netflix film to date. On top of that, it is the first film Brothers Russo – Anthony and Joe – have made since Cherry, starring Tom Holland. All this and the tier-A cast made it one of the most-anticipated films of the year. However, the end result is disappointingly underwhelming. The story is straightforward but the action is chaotic, the background score loud, and some of the cinematographic choices are really puzzling.
The film's unique selling point is its action, which is sad because much of it is incomprehensible. The action set pieces are so chaotic that it's often hard to follow what is happening on screen. One plane fight scene, in particular, was headache-inducing. Then there are the weird camera pans that the Russos have employed for scene transitions. The impact of that, coupled with wide-angle photography, is almost dizzying to the point of motion sickness. And the unrelenting pace of the film barely gives you any time to process the plot, or even breathe for that matter.
The film does have its moments, the chief being a very well-crafted and choreographed tram chase scene in downtown Prague, which is easily the best part of the film. In addition to that are all fight scenes involving Dhanush, which are gritty yet smooth, giving an indication of just what the National Award-winner is capable of. And the cast delivers what they were signed for. Ryan Gosling may not lack the charm of Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis but he is an unlikely action star. He is perfect as Sierra Six, in both the gritty and the funny moments. Among the support cast, Billy Bob Thornton and Julia Butters stand out. But the film truly is the Chris Evans show. He wipes the floor with anyone and everyone in his scenes. Chris is so far from his Captain America days that you often forget it's the same actor. But talents like Wagner Moura and Jessica Henwick have been totally wasted by the directors.
Personally, I'd feel bad if the film 'does not do well', whatever that means in the streaming world. Because a lukewarm reception to this film could mean we don't get the Dhanush spinoff and Chris Evans prequel that the Russos have hinted at. These two actors were easily the best part of the film and it would be a shame to not see them and their characters again on screen. Chris and his porn-stache steal every scene they are in. His sociopathic Lloyd Hansen is a delight, even if it's a minor let down from his other recent grey turn – Knives Out. But he owns this movie, except whenever Dhanush is on screen. The Indian star makes a memorable Hollywood debut and he will certainly gain a new legion of fans with his performance and action here. The role is definitely brief but quite enjoyable and quite memorable.
The film still might be a success. Action blockbusters' performance and success hardly ever depends on critical acclaim. The Fast and Furious franchise is a living, breathing nine-film proof of that. The Gray Man just might ride the big publicity wave and end up being a success on Netflix. But it still puzzles me why this film is on Netflix. In its scale, approach, and treatment, it is clearly a summer blockbuster. The action sequences are grand and meant to be watched on a big screen, not a smartphone or tablet. For action junkies, the film is a good one-time watch. But it was not in the same league as some of the films that have inspired it, or even Russos' own Captain America: Winter Soldier, a film that was more action and less VFX than their other MCU outings.
Many would compare The Gray Man unfavourably to Russos' MCU films. What MCU had was some amazing VFX that often masked the shortcomings in script if there were any. You cannot help but overawed when you look at Endgame's climactic battle. In fact, if you look at any of Russos' previous hits, they were replete with iconic moments. It could be Captain America lifting the Mjolnir in Endgame, Thor's electrifying arrival on Wakanda in Infinity War, Black Panther's tunnel chase scene in Civil War, or merely Bucky stopping Cap's shield with his hand in Winter Soldier. The Gray Man lacks that. There is not one moment or scene that stands out and makes you gasp. It is a grand scale film but one that may not stay with you as it ages.