In a perfunctory flashback that aims to give some grounding to this frictionless spy ‘thriller’, Ryan Gosling’s protagonist (known by codename Sierra 6, or just 6) incorrectly explains the myth of Sisyphus. It is one of those portentous moments, where the story is only brought up as a thematic echo: 6 has Sisyphus’ name (in Greek) tattooed on his forearm, and this detail is supposed to evoke him and his struggle. 6 very coyly explains the myth —everything in this film is in this gratingly ironic affect (a reminder that this is the Russo brothers of Marvel fame, and that that has become the series’ register) — and says how it is about this guy who keeps pushing this boulder up a hill, pushing to the top of the mountain. He is asked if this guy ever makes it, he responds (something along the lines of) we will see. You see, he’s talking about himself… Get it? Will he ever make it through his struggle? Will the constant uphill battle ever net its reward?
Only, the point of the Sisyphus myth is not getting to the top of the mountain, it is about how the boulder always rolls down again. Admittedly, this extra detail could be implied, but it is telling that it is not clarified. It is telling that the film’s one attempt at depth feels unfinished and ultimately irrelevant. It is fitting, though, as The Gray Man does feel like this false version of the myth: a dull, linear ‘action’ film that feels like a constant uphill struggle, one not aware enough to have the moment of reflection and absurdism that makes the thing actually work. Because this film is just a boulder going up a hill, a slog of perpetual exertion as supposedly exciting action scenes keep happening but carry no impact. It just persists; in this metaphor, the boulder rolling down is just audience response and forever dropping expectations.
For a film that has been marketed around its expense, the Russo’s do not do a good job of putting this money on screen. Though, the one positive of the film is the performers who are compelling (even if the characters themselves don’t work). The salaries to get a slew of names must have had an impact; however, beyond this, there is very little to show for the large investment. It really is a beyond generic looking thriller. The set pieces are in appropriately jet-setting locales, places that should equal visual flair, but the film thinks location is enough. Firstly, we are often relegated to boring basements or something of similarly aesthetic worth; secondly, the film is terribly shot. There is an overreliance on drone footage, for one. If you think Michael Bay’s drones in AmbuLAnce were a lot, well, here’s a film that uses them with less purposes. One of the most egregious moments is when an establishing shot of a generic office building is this aggressive drone swoop in as opposed to just, you know, a shot of a building. Drones are used as an attention grabbing device, one that is emblematic of the wider filmmaking here.
You see, this film has such little command over the core verbs of filmmaking. There is no spatial logic to the thing (though, this at least reflects the lack of narrative logic in which characters are only ever what the film needs them to be and the stakes of one scene rarely really affect the stakes of the next). Using a camera as a storytelling device is the core of filmmaking, the knowledge that placement is key. The Russo’s have no interest with the camera as a tool, instead, all of the visual narrative is created in the edit (and the film is built around the logic of CG being able to fill the gaps). Attempts at impact are created through cuts and transitions, the actual shots that make these moments end up being rather redundant. It is a lot of insert shots and lingering moments, and none of them really have any visual impact at all. One could label it merely functional, this seems to be the intent, but it does not actually achieve this. A nice example is one of the better action scenes in the film: a fight on a plane. It devolves into a limp CG mess (CG not being inherently a problem but the reliance on it, and inability to portray it convincingly through direction, that is a problem) but, to begin with, there’s a decent melee. The camera sits at a mid-range and lets a fight take place in the frame. Here, we see some spatial reasoning and actually using the tools of cinema to present something: it works. But, the Russos need you to know 6 is going to pick up a gun on the floor, so the camera pans down and zooms in. This actually cuts off detail at the top of the frame, obscuring the action and ruining the shot. But, how else were you to know a gun was picked up?
This links back to the drones, as it displays such a lack of belief in the audience. The filmmaking is not there to present or evoke something, it is purely there to guide the viewer like they are on a lead or to poke them awake. The drone shots seem like calculated attempts to generate interest, showing the misguided philosophy that sudden swoops of movement are interesting. Again, the core tenets of filmmaking do not exist here. Action is uniformly overedited to the point of being unreadable, or just bland, because there is no sense of how to use cameras to present story. Because action scenes should have an internal narrative to them, and the camera creates narrative. Here, there is nothing of the sort.
It should not be surprising, though, because the overall narrative is so poor. A lack of narrative sense seems inherent to the enterprise. Somehow, this film is based on a book. It feels more like it is based on a free to download action movie script template that those involved forgot to actually edit and make original before just printing it off. To call it clichéd feels charitable as it does not really do enough to merit this. Our lead character is set up as rookie, then as an expert and then betrays everything they know on a whim. The thing they are betraying is clearly a bad thing but not enough has been established to make the choice make sense to the character, only the audience (we know it is bad but only because we exist externally). This character has been part of the system for years and, suddenly, diverges just so the film can have a plot. We then have a whole bunch of inconsistent characters with whatever moral code the specific scene needs, and a forced backstory that makes our main character have a connection with a child, as a way of making them seem human (which feels trite) — there’s a (thankfully rare) recurring flashback of familial abuse which is completely unnecessary and ends up in a messy climax that, seemingly accidentally, justifies our characters abuse (a convenient flashback to struggling against an abusive father lets him struggle against the villain). Our ostensible villain is played by Chris Evans, who seems to be having fun but also is coming from a different film. He is written like a quippy Marvel character, but mean, and is a cartoon. He is from a knock-off Shane Black movie and the rest of the film is knock-off Mission Impossible. It just does not go together.
So, it turns out you can throw all the money at something and that isn’t enough. Who knew? Some of the actors being fun to watch aside, because they are good actors, the only real positive to this film is the realisation that the last fifteen minutes are actually credits. Whichwas a huge relief. That aside, the name is very fitting. It thinks that Gray is all about moral ambiguity, it is actually about blandness. This is a gray film full of gray men and gray filmmaking. Not even shades of gray, just bland, industrial gray.