The Gray Man is an enjoyable action mess without much identity

After destroying the box office and now directing Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans for Netflix, just who are the Russo brothers? Travis Johnson is still unsure, in his mixed review of their new thriller The Gray Man.

Here’s the thing about Joe and Anthony Russo: their skills have almost always been in service to the vision of others.

After a couple of early feature efforts (the fun Welcome to Collinwood, the less fun You, Me and Dupree) they made their mark directing episodes of acclaimed TV comedies like Arrested Development and Community before clambering to the top of the MCU ziggurat, taking over the Captain America series with The Winter Soldier and ultimately calling the shots on the epic Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Quite a career arc, but it’s worth noting that Arrested Development is Mitchell Hurwitz’s baby, and Community is Dan Harmon’s, while Kevin Feige honchos the MCU. Whatever the Russos brought to the table, they did so as hired help.

Now they’re trying to find their own footing as filmmakers, and that’s all well and good. But first we got the dreadful Cherry via Apple TV+ in 2021, which even Tom Holland in Serious Actor Mode couldn’t save, and now we have The Gray Man, which boasts a star-studded cast, a globe-trotting plot, plenty of action, and the sneaking suspicion that, bereft of firm guidance from further up the production totem pole, The Russos will just push off in any old direction.

In this case it means riffing on a number of other, better films to create something which, while consistently enjoyable, never establishes its own identity.

The Gray Man of the title is Court Gentry, aka Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling), who was recruited out of prison by avuncular handler Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) to become a deniable asset for the CIA. Many years and assassinations later, Six finds himself on the run after a botched job, with the standard issue “thumb drive full of dirty secrets” in his possession, an ally in fellow agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), and a nemesis in freelance psychopath Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans with a dirtbag mo), who has been sent after him by CIA higher ups (Regé-Jean Page and Jessica Henwick) who don’t fancy what’s on that USB coming to light.

Our man Six is one of those hyper-capable walk-between-the-raindrops types, so Hansen decides to target the one chink in his impenetrable armour: Fitzroy’s sickly niece Claire (Julia Butters, the kid from Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood), for whom our implacable assassin has a soft spot. This proves to be a mistake for them and good fortune for us, because you just know all kinds of hell is gonna be unleashed on anyone daring to harm a hair on her head.

The Gray Man works in discrete units, with each scene impressing while having little in common with its neighbours. It’s not just that the whole thing takes notes from The Bourne Identity (assassin on the run), La Femme Nikita (criminal recruited by the state), Man on Fire (the killer and the kid), and more, but that it fails to synthesise its influences into something coherent.

Moments of drama are undercut with asinine quips, moments of horror—poor Billy Bob loses a few fingernails in an interrogation scene—sit uncomfortably alongside the more high-flying action set pieces (the action is impressive, on the whole).

The result is a film that lacks a sense of itself, and what charms it does possess is miles away from the source novel by Tom Clancy acolyte Mark Greaney. While Evans in scheming villain mode is fun, and the $200 million budget is more apparent than Netflix’s previous (and woeful) star-studded action caper, Red Notice, the main takeaway from this one is that while the Russo brothers are excellent technicians, they’re not auteurs.