One of the tried and tested premises of the action movie is to pit an unstoppable force against an immovable object. Extra points if they’re on opposite sides of the law, extra extra points if it’s two huge movie stars as your opposing poles. There’s Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in “Heat,” Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in “Die Hard”, Andy Lau and Tony Leong in “Infernal Affairs,” Vin Diesel and the Rock in “Fast Five,” Vin Diesel and Jason Statham in “Furious 7,” Vin Diesel and John Cena in “F9”, presumably Vin Diesel and Vin Diesel in “F11: The Furious Get Faster.”
The point is that, we, as audiences, have had a lot of experience watching two men (bald and/or bearded) butt heads, vying for their spot as top dog.
And so, the Russo brothers throw their hat in the ring with “The Gray Man,” starring two huge movie stars, Ryan Gosling as the eponymous Gray Man, and Chris Evans, as the man chasing him down. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.
Except neither of them can really be described as such. Because outside of the great, and instantly profitable, casting, nothing about “The Gray Man” is remarkable.
Chris Evans is clearly having a great time, reveling in the bad boy era of his blockbuster career following 2020’s “Knives Out.” He’s over-the-top, he’s moustached, he’s wearing short-sleeved turtlenecks. This is the frat-house villain Evans was born to play, and he fully leans into it.
Gosling, on the other hand, isn’t given nearly as much to work with. Is his character stoic? Charming? Untrusting? Flippant? The movie can’t make up its mind. What we get is an assembly of quips and character “moments,” all of which seem to contradict. It’s hardly Gosling’s finest action performance, but he can’t be faulted for it.
Because the most lackluster aspect of “The Gray Man” is its direction. The Russo brothers made Disney billions of dollars, having directed two Captain America movies and two Avengers movies. Now, they are free to tell their own stories, unencumbered by the prior ten or subsequent fifteen movies tied to their movie.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe does one of two things to its best directors. It either gives them a chance to twist the formula to their own tastes, like with James Gunn and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Ryan Coogler and “Black Panther,” or Taika Waititi and “Thor: Ragnarok.” Or it clamps down on their idiosyncrasies, draining them of what makes them special, like with Chloe Zhao and “The Eternals” or Sam Raimi and “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”
With the Russos, it’s clear they did neither.
Free from the MCU’s shackles, they come to the table, boldly bringing nothing. The colors are bland, the shots are static, the action setpieces are unimaginative. There are maybe three or four gems in the entire film, like Gosling’s escape from a subterranean pit, or an excellent fight between Gosling, Ana De Armas, and Tamil cinema star, Dhanush. But outside of that? It is bland, uninspired, gray. Not gray, as its title wants you to think, as in morally nuanced or shady, cloaked in shadow. Gray, as in literally gray, as in they forgot that, as of the 1950s, the moving pictures could have color too.
That lack of imagination bleeds into the characters. Chris Evans never seems particularly competent. Nor does Ryan Gosling seem singularly motivated. Instead of an unstoppable force crashing into an immovable object, we have a slow wheel, rolling into a damp sponge.
And even beyond that rivalry, every single element of “The Gray Man” has been done better somewhere else. Does that make it bad? No. But it does make for a pretty bland time. So if you wanted “The Gray Man” for any of the following factors, here’s my recommendations:
If you want intense hand-to-hand combat, then watch Donnie Yen in the “Ip Man” franchise.
If you want guns blasting away, bullets flying everywhere, try any of the three “John Wick” movies instead.
If you want a great Ryan Gosling performance as a down-on-his-luck hero, watch “The Nice Guys.”
If you want flashy action choreography with big setpieces, try “RRR” instead — “RRR” which does more with an errant hose than “The Grey Man” does with its bevy of fireworks, smoke grenades, and various other fog-related items.
If you want to see two hundred million dollars put to good use under exciting direction with an electrifying vision, watch “Mad Max: Fury Road” (which was actually thirty million dollars cheaper and also had a guitar that spat fire.)
If you want to see a bitter rivalry between two titans of action, giving their performances everything they’ve got, set to a backdrop of betrayal, murder, and intrigue, watch “Face-Off.”
And if you wanted a spy thriller with splashy outfits, fancy cars, and femme fatales, you could go with any of Daniel Craig’s Bond movies, any of the Mission Impossible movies, and really, if that still wasn’t enough, you could probably settle for “Secret Agent Cody Banks.”
If the one thing you want is for the Russo brothers to prove themselves without the juggernaut of the MCU, then you are going to have to keep waiting.