What makes a great action movie? If you were to ask the Russo brothers, veterans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they would tell you that the surest way to enter the pantheon of great action movies is to fill your film with as many drone shots of non-American cities as possible. and then superimpose the name of the city on each of them in large, clear white letters.
Or at least it’s hard to imagine them offering any other answer after seeing their latest offering, a colossally expensive spy thriller called gray man, which was released on Netflix this weekend. The film follows Six (Ryan Gosling), a witty and charming CIA assassin with a heart of gold, who finds himself on the run from his handlers after being sent on a mission that reveals that his world is not what it seems and blah blah . blah blah blah, honestly, who cares? Trying to explain what this movie is about is a waste of time because it’s clear that everyone who made it doesn’t really care, so why would you? The film is a mixture of plot points and set pieces taken from every popular action movie made in the last 20 or so years, and so if you’ve seen any of the Bourne, James Bond, John Wick or Mission: Impossible franchise’s snippets, you’ve already seen the best version of this movie. There is a devoted hero desperately trying to survive by uncovering the truth, a hot lady who always has his back, and an endless stream of surly killers ready to take them both in close combat. There is, of course, a precocious child who needs to be rescued, and a lot of joking banter. God there is so much banter.
There is another version of this film in which all this can be forgiven. No one is necessarily looking for a big-budget action movie to reinvent the wheel, and if someone wants to throw a ton of money for a script that was the Frankenstein of other films in the genre and a supremely charming cast, then I say go crazy. It’s a garbage flavor that I won’t hesitate to drink. Where gray man fails not because of a lack of originality, but because of a shaky design. Netflix and the Russo brothers may have built a decent foundation for a successful action movie, but then they forgot to, you know, put the movie in there.
Which brings us back to all those pretty drone shots. The characters in this film travel around the globe at such a speed that concepts such as time and space cease to matter, leaving a distinct impression that the main concern of the people who made this film was that everyone who watches it understands how much money it costs to make. There are, I don’t know, a dozen different pieces of set scattered over more cities than I care to count, and yet gray man manages to be one of the most boring films I’ve seen this year. Each sequence simply comes and goes, being washed away almost immediately by the next. Any good spy thriller depends on its sequence; every explosion, gunfight, betrayal, and exposure must be carefully sorted and layered in such a way as to build tension and momentum steadily. If watching Mission: Impossible is like tasting the menu, with each dish evoking anticipation of the next, then watching gray man it’s like all the trays from the buffet, where you can eat, immediately fall out on your table when the Russo brothers come up to you and shout: Eat, pigs!
Another thing that makes a good action movie is being able to see and understand what’s going on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie more committed to hiding its action from the audience. Every other battle scene is obscured by smoke from an explosion, smoke from a fire, a blinding sunrise, a strobing flashlight, smoke from a lit rocket, and even smoke from a flurry of industrial fireworks. There is fog and haze everywhere, and so many transitions between punches and kicks that I suppose nausea can be a problem for anyone watching this in a movie theater. In addition, there is a lack of editing and scene composition, making it nearly impossible to tell where any character is in relation to others during the film’s biggest scenes. At one point, our villain, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), says, “Oh my God, how hard is it to shoot someone?” during a seemingly endless scene in which about 20 gunmen shoot Six, who is handcuffed to a bench in the town square. I thought the same!
What the Russo brothers don’t seem to understand is that it’s not the number of cities our hero sets foot in, the number of gunfights, or even the size of the explosions that makes a great action movie. These are small details. This expression of agony appears on the face of Miles Tellers when the real fighter he rides reaches five Gs; these are the bloodstains left by John McClane’s glass-riddled legs on a skyscraper window; it’s the brief moment where Tom Cruise pauses to roll his eyes wearily before grabbing his opponent over the bathroom wall. This is all that makes the action movie not only tactile, but also similar to what was actually created with great attention and care.
AT gray manThe Russo brothers eschewed all the attention to detail in favor of more and more portions of badly blocked and edited action sequences, each drenched in an annoying amount of uncanny CGI (maybe that’s what all the smoke was trying to cover up). For the first half hour, you can watch Gosling “jump” out of an exploding plane, after which he turns into a plastic and elastic computer game, and then, washed out by computer smoke and debris, bounces off the bad guy’s parachute like a video game character. All of this made me feel like I was looking at something that had been done the night before, hastily and casually. I probably should have just turned it off then.
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