the gray man

At one point in The Gray Man, Netflix’s globetrotting adventure about the innate evil of Harvard graduates, CIA assassin Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) sprints atop a rapidly-derailing tram and then crash-lands on the windshield of a car. His reaction? A bit of a wince and a muffled sound that Netflix subtitles helpfully describe as a “soft groan”. All in a day’s work, a sentiment he verbalises through the film. 

Before this, Six falls out of a plane, spins dizzyingly in midair for a few seconds, then reorients himself. The choice of background score in this scene — soaring and triumphant, instead of tense — signals a theme that recurs throughout the film. It opts to underline not the stakes (a man potentially plummeting to his death without a parachute) but the idea that they don’t matter. Six, still in midair, grabs a falling mercenary in an attempt to steal his parachute. The scene, disinterested in what happens next, cuts away before it can conclude. The next time Six appears, it’s during a calm phonecall. 

the gray man
Physical injuries? Never heard of them.

Viewers are likely to be more disoriented than he ever finds himself over the film’s nine (nine!) big setpieces, dazed by the rapidfire cuts and dramatic zooms, the shifting points of view and the lack of narrative clarity. The characters’ superhuman endurance allows them to survive bazooka blasts and grenade explosions, and shrug off garden-variety stabbings and shootings with nonchalance. They talk of locations halfway around the world and find themselves there one scene later. Time is inconsequential. Stakes are non-existent. The Russo brothers’ $200 million film, reportedly Netflix’s most expensive original, is billed as a spy thriller, but envision The Gray Man as a superhero film instead and it feels a lot more plausible.

What’s ironic is that the Russos shot to mainstream success by humanising the superheroes in the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), making them vulnerable, pinpointing their bruises and probing at their weaknesses. Working with frequent writing partners Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, with whom they also teamed up on The Gray Man, the Russos rooted the action in emotion right from Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). The introduction of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) wordlessly cemented him as a formidable Marvel villain by having him exude strength and quiet menace, catching Captain America’s (Chris Evans) shield as easily as one would a frisbee. The film’s highway fight and eventual hand-to-hand combat sequence between the two not only employed visually distinct manoeuvres (that knife flip!), but also made great use of the characters’ physicality to convey what dialogue could not. Fans — used to Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) perpetually unruffled demeanour — immediately clocked the intensity of the threat when the former Russian spy ran down the street in panic after being shot, her breathing shallow and her expression uncharacteristically stunned. 

The Gray Man features the same basic premise as The Winter Soldier — a skilled operative (Gosling) on the run from a hired assassin (Evans again) — only this time, the fights feel elaborate and laboured. They reveal little about their combatants, both metaphorically and literally. Several of the action sequences are masked by a hazy in-universe smoke as the characters set off flares or fight against the backdrop of a fireworks display. Several times, the camera rapidly snakes through the action, a technique that would be more at home in a creature feature following a predator honing in on its victims, rather than a spy thriller. If the directors are attempting to literalise the hunter-hunted metaphor of the plot, it doesn’t translate. The job of hinting at the characters’ personalities falls to the punchlines delivered in between the punches. 

The Russos might define themselves as maximalists, but one of their best action sequences in the MCU benefitted from restraint. In The Winter Soldier, Captain America took down nine double agents in less than two minutes in the enclosed space of an elevator, with one of his hands restrained to the wall for most of the scene. The directors give their Gray Man hero this same disadvantage, cuffing Six’s hand to a public bench as teams of mercenaries arrive to assassinate him, but this eye-glazing, nine-minute-long sequence — which includes gas explosions with public shootouts and even a high-speed chase — still can’t replicate the thrill of that elevator scene. The Russos return to compact spaces in The Gray Man, such as the narrow aisles of a tram and the cramped confines of a cargo plane, but can’t utilise them as effectively.

The aftermath of the elevator fight in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The aftermath of the elevator fight in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).

It’s not as though the directors always paint with broad strokes when they’re handed a larger canvas. Their climactic Avengers: Endgame (2019) battle spans over 20 minutes, but uses fights to advance several narratives and underscore character traits. Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) grief, Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr) self-sacrificial streak and Captain America’s heroism emerge out of the CGI carnage. While Avengers: Civil War (2016), also directed by the Russo brothers, was criticised for its dull palette (its biggest fight takes place on a grey airport tarmac), the brawling style reinforced the idea of longtime friends coerced into fighting each other after their ideals positions them on opposite sides of the law. Their methods were efficient, but their heart wasn’t in it. 

None of these emotions, however, come through in Cherry (2021), the directors’ first post-Marvel film based on war veteran Nico Walker’s memoir. In the film, war is shot like a video game that must be navigated, with the blood, dirt and smoke of battle filtered through a glossy aesthetic. The directors stylise these scenes with drone shots, an explosion filmed through the rearview mirror of a tank and a bird’s eye point of view. For all Cherry (Tom Holland) talks about the horrors of war and his resulting PTSD, the visuals rarely match. 

A much more striking image of loss is crafted in Avengers: Endgame, which ends on a heavy note of abject failure. Half its heroes die. The other half are utterly defeated. There isn’t a single moment in The Gray Man that comes close to the distress of this film. When a hero jumps out of an airplane and defies gravity, how can anything else hope to bear weight?

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