What makes a great action movie? If you were to ask the Russo brothers, veterans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they might tell you that the surest way to enter the pantheon of great action filmmaking is to stuff your movie with as many drone shots of non-American cities as possible, and then overlay the name of the city—in big, blocky white letters of course—on each one.
Or at least it’s hard to imagine them offering any other answer after watching their latest offering, a stupendously expensive spy-action thriller called The Gray Man, which released on Netflix this weekend. The movie follows Six (Ryan Gosling), a witty and charming CIA assassin with a heart of gold who ends up on the run from his own handlers after he is sent on a mission that reveals that his world is not as it seems and blah blah blah blah blah honestly who gives a shit? Trying to explain what this movie is about is a complete waste of time because it is clear that nobody who made it actually cares, so why should you? The film is a pastiche of plot points and set pieces lifted from every popular action movie that’s been made over the last 20 or so years, and so if you’ve seen any pieces of the Bourne, James Bond, John Wick, or Mission Impossible franchises, you’ve already seen a better version of this movie. There’s a betrayed hero desperately trying to survive while uncovering the truth, a hot lady who always has his back, and a never-ending stream of grim-faced assassin’s ready to do close-quarters gun-fu combat with both of them. There is of course a precocious child who needs rescuing, and plenty of quippy banter. God, there is so much banter.
There is a different version of this movie in which all of that could be forgiven. Nobody is necessarily looking for a big-budget action movie to reinvent the wheel, and if someone wants to throw a ton of money behind a script that’s been Frankenstein’d out of other entries in the genre and an eminently charming cast, then I say go nuts. That’s a flavor of garbage that I will not hesitate to drink. Where The Gray Man fails is not in its lack of originality, but in its rickety construction. Netflix and the Russo brothers may have made a decent framework for a successful action movie, but then they forgot to, you know, put a movie in there.
Which brings us back to all those pretty drone shots. The characters in this movie ping around the globe at such a rate that concepts like time and space cease to matter, and one is left with the distinct impression that the primary concern of the people who made this movie was making sure that everyone who watches it understands just how much money it cost to make. There are, I don’t know, a dozen different action set pieces spread around more cities than I care to count, and yet The Gray Man manages to be one of the more boring films I’ve seen this year. Each sequence just kind of comes and goes, washed away almost immediately by the next one. Any good spy-action thriller depends on its sequencing; each explosion, gun fight, betrayal, and revelation has to be carefully sorted and layered in a way that steadily builds tension and momentum. If watching a Mission Impossible movie is like experiencing a tasting menu, with each dish building anticipation for the next, then watching The Gray Man is like having the every tray at an all-you-can-eat buffet dumped out on your table all at once, at which the Russo brothers walk over and yell, Eat it up, piggies!
Another thing that makes for a good action movie is being able to actually see and understand what is happening. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie more committed to hiding its action from the audience. Every other fight scene is obscured by smoke from an explosion, smoke from a fire, a blinding sunrise, a strobing flashlight, smoke from a lit flare, and even smoke from a barrage of industrial fireworks. There is fog and mist everywhere, and so many cuts between punches and kicks that I imagine nausea could be a problem for anyone who watches it in a theater. And then there’s the lack of editing and scene composition, which makes it nearly impossible to understand where any character is in relation to the others during the movie’s biggest action sequences. At one point our villain, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), says, “My God, how hard is it to shoot somebody?” during a seemingly endless scene in which 20 or so gunmen are shooting at Six while he’s handcuffed to a bench in a public square. I was wondering the same thing!
What the Russo brothers do not seem to understand is that it isn’t the number of cities our hero sets foot in, or the number of shootouts, or even the size of the explosions that make for a great action movie. It’s the the little details. It’s the agonized look that comes over Miles Tellers’s face when the actual fighter jet he is riding in hits five Gs; it’s the smears of blood that John McClane’s glass-riddled feet leave on a skyscraper window; it’s the brief moment when Tom Cruise pauses to wearily roll his eyes before tackling his adversary through a bathroom wall. These are all the things that not only make an action movie feel tactile, but like something that was actually created with a level of care and attention.
In The Gray Man, the Russo brothers eschewed all attention to detail in favor of more and more heaping helpings of poorly blocked and edited action sequences, each of them suffused with a jarring amount of uncanny CGI (maybe that’s what all the smoke was trying to obscure). Within the first half hour you get to watch Gosling “leap” out of an exploding airplane, at which point he transforms into a plastic and stretchy CGI recreation and then, blurred by computer-generated smoke and debris, bounces off a bad guy’s parachute like a video game character. It all made me feel like I was looking at something that was made the night before, hastily and without care. I probably should have just turned it off then.