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The Gray Man (2022)

Two movies removed from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I’m starting to wonder if the brotherly directing duo of Joe and Anthony Russo are absent their own vision. Cherry was an exhausting and annoying experience overloaded with self-conscious stylistic choices that dominated the movie and squeezed it from its dramatic potential. Now we have The Gray Man, based upon the 2009 book by a former Tom Clancy writing collaborator, and it looks indistinguishable from any other big-budget spy thriller. It feels like The Russos doing their version of Michael Bay doing his version of the Jason Bourne series. It’s an expensive movie for Netflix, in the range of $200 million, and it just made me think about 2019’s Six Underground, their $200 million collaboration with Bay where he had creative freedom to make the most bombastic, hyper masculine, and tedious movie of his career. If you’re going to devote a fifth of a billion dollars for a Michael Bay-esque action movie, you might as well hire the real deal again. The Gray Man is a passable action movie, especially in its middle, but it’s wholly derivative and coasting off your memories of better spy thrillers and better characters.

The titular “Gray Man” is a super-secret Sierra agent given the code name Six (Ryan Gosling). He’s been the government’s indispensable tool for taking out bad guy and keeping the world safe for 18 years, working time off his prison sentence. Then it all goes wrong when, of course, his callous boss (Rege-Jean Page, Bridgerton) demands he “take the shot” even if it means the death of an innocent child in the process. Six declines, the covert assignment becomes much messier, and he learns that his target was a former agent from the sane secret Sierra cabal. The dying man gives Six a MacGuffin necklace that the big bad boss really wants. Six goes on the run, with the help of some allies like another agent (Ana de Armas) and his retired handler (Billy Bob Thornton), and the CIA sends every professional killer to get their man. This includes the mustachioed Llyod Hansen (Chris Evans), a ruthless private mercenary who brags about being kicked out of the C.I.A. academy for his lack of ethics and impulse control issues.

If you’re just looking for an action vehicle that provides enough bang and sizzle, The Gray Man can suffice. I’ll champion the highlights first before equivocating on them. There’s a recognizable blockbuster elan to the movie with enough energy to keep your attention. There is a significant uptick in the middle that gave me a false sense of hope that The Gray Man had transformed into a better movie. Again, this occurs well into an hour into a slightly under two-hour movie, but credit where its due, there is a nicely developed sequence of substantial action. For being a spy thriller, a majority of the movie takes place in and around Berlin. Six is handcuffed by German police to a park bench in the middle of an open square. Lloyd sends in vans of powerfully-armed goons that take out the police and then set their sights on Six. He’s trapped to the bench but still mobile, to a point, but he’s also unarmed. Watching the character react to these limitations and adapt is greatly pleasing. This is the stuff of good action cinema; supermen get boring without having to overcome legitimate obstacles and/or mini-goals. He’s able to escape and thwart his attackers and hides in a tram. This then becomes the next level of our action, and he has to utilize close-quarter combat to tease out his new attackers. And then a speeding truck with a rocket launcher shows up. And then de Armas shows up with a sports car for Six to try and leap into. And then both of those vehicles do battle while Six climbs atop the speeding tram and uses the reflection in a passing building to line up his shot to take out a goon inside the train underneath his feet. This entire middle action set piece is top-notch. It’s exciting, stylish without being too derivative, and there’s a clear set of cause-effect escalation. This is good action writing, and it’s a shame that this is also the peak with still 40 minutes left.

The beginning and closing of The Gray Man blunt whatever enjoyment I could gather. The film is oddly structured and uneven from reliable screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Avengers: Endgame). The opening scene watching Thornton recruit Gosling in his jail cell seems completely superfluous as something that could have been explained in passing, or needed no setup, but it’s at least short. There’s also a lengthy flashback in the middle of the movie that sets up Six’s allegiance to Thornton’s niece (Julia Butters, the little girl from Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) as he babysits and saves her from kidnappers. Again, I don’t think we needed to have a set up why our protagonist would deign to save a child, but even if the movie wants to add more emotional heft to their relationship, why drop this in the middle of the movie? Why not even have this open the movie instead of the jailhouse recruitment? I like their scenes together. It reminded me of 2016’s underrated The Nice Guys. It’s just not enough to hang onto because there is no heart to this film; it is all quips and speed and flagging genre imitation. Just re-read the plot description. The genre cliches are all there, and we even have the old chestnut where the villain monologues that they and the hero are not so different.

There’s also a questionable series of shorter flashbacks of Six as a kid surviving his abusive father’s rigorous “training,” including burning a kid’s arm with a cigarette lighter or dunking his head underwater. Again, I doubt we needed to visualize these scenes when Six could have explained his traumatic upbringing with Gosling’s acting. I was worried, and I’m still not dissuaded, that The Gray Man was establishing the parental abuse as having trained Six for these unique circumstances, that dear old bad dad somehow saved his adult son’s life. Do we need a flashback of his dad holding his head underwater to convey that Six, as his head is held underwater by Lloyd, does not like this? It reminded me of 2017’s Split when Shyamalan questionably had his character survive her captor because he recognized that she too had been abused. Did her trauma save her? The needless jumping around in time feels like The Gray Man attempting to be cleverer, or perhaps aping more of the genre expectations from an action movie of this size. The finale also lacks either the emotional catharsis or action climax that can serve as a satisfying conclusion. The last act is a compound assault set piece but it’s really just a series of interconnected gunfights and explosions. The mini-goals and engaging cause-effect escalation from before is absent.

There are a few commendable moments or choices among the blockbuster cruise control. I enjoyed that this was not just a Knives Out reunion between de Armas and a villainous Evans but it was also a Blade Runner 2049 reunion between de Armas and Gosling. I think de Armas deserves her own spy vehicle, especially after being one of the highlights of 2021’s No Time to Die (granted, it helps having Phoebe Waller-Bridge writing your character). I liked a hand-to-hand combat scene where Six utilized flares both to obscure his presence as well as an offensive weapon. Evans is fun to watch as a preening peacock of a villain, though there’s so little to his character beyond a bad mustache and smarmy attitude. There are some decent drone shots, though the dipping of the camera makes them feel more like point of view aerial assault shots. The Russos really, really like their drone shots in this movie (how much of the budget did this suck up?). However, the drone shots just made me think of the better drone shots from 2021’s Ambulance, Michael Bay’s newest movie, and it further cemented The Gray Man feeling like a clunky combination of other movies and artists. If you’ve seen any espionage action movie of the last ten years, you’ve seen enough to recognize all the key pieces of The Gray Man, and while its competent enough to satisfy the most forgiving of genre fans, it’s really just more empty noise.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Matrix Resurrections (2021)

It is hard to overstate how influential The Matrix was upon its release in 1999. It rewrote the science fiction and action genres for Hollywood and introduced American audiences to many of the filmmaking techniques of Eastern cinema. It was exciting, philosophical, challenging, and made an instant brand out of the Wachowskis, the writing/directing siblings who had previously only directed one indie movie. The 2003 sequels were filmed back-to-back and released to great anticipatory fanfare and then, later, derision. The Matrix sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions, became a shorthand joke for bloated artistic miscalculation. They were talky, draggy, and just not what fans were hoping for jacking back into this strange world, and years later I think they’re worth a critical re-evaluation. Flash forward to 2021, and Lana Wachowski has resurrected The Matrix, and with the original actors for Neo and Trinity, both of whom died in Revolutions. Why go back? I think part of this was the declining career of the Wachowskis as directors. I personally loved 2012’s Cloud Atlas but it was an expensive and messy money-loser, the same as 2008’s Speed Racer and 2015’s Jupiter Ascending, a cosmically bad movie. So now it’s back to The Matrix with an older Neo, and older Trinity, and more of the same by design. The Matrix Resurrections just made me sad. It’s a movie that feels resentful for its own inception.

Thomas Anderson/Neo (Reeves) is living out his life as an award-winning game designer. His company and business partner, Smith (Jonathan Groff), are looking for their next big hit, and they’re looking backwards at Anderson’s biggest success… the “Matrix trilogy.” It was a virtual reality program that skewered the difference between reality and fiction. Mr. Anderson might have even based the role of Trinity on Tiffany (Carrie Anne-Moss), a woman he has grown infatuated with over time at a coffee shop. Except Mr. Anderson is having trouble determining what is real and what is only in his head. That’s because a new, younger Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is telling him that he’s Neo, that he’s destined for greater things, and that he’s been kept in an unorthodox prison to keep him out of the action. Everyone seems interested in reactivating Neo, but for what purpose, and what has happened in the ensuing decades since the end of the war with the machines?

Part of my struggle with Resurrections is that it too is struggling with its own existence, and not in a meta-textual sort of identity crisis, more like a reason to carry on 18 years later. Fair warning, this movie is far, far more meta than you are anticipating. The entire first hour of the movie features characters justifying rebooting “The Matrix,” the game. It’s a movie where characters glibly talk about parent companies going forward with the IP with or without the involvement of the original creators, so better to be the one trying to staunch the bleeding I suppose. A character literally says Warner Brothers wants a new Matrix and they will not stop until they get one. There are characters that sit around a table and try and break down what made the original Matrix (the game) so cutting-edge, and every person has a different brand slogan. “It was edgy.” “It blew your mind.” “It was a thinking man’s action story.” This prolonged section of Resurrections feels entirely like Wachowski speaking directly to her audience and saying, “Look, I had no reason to be back here. They forced my hand, and I want you to know that I’m not happy about it.” There are literal moments from the 1999 film that are presented as if the characters in the matrix are watching The Matrix to recreate scenes like avid cosplayers. There is one part where a character just starts screaming the word “reboot” with profane intention, promising to get their own spinoff as a threat. The entertainment industry satire about reboots and cash-grab sequels is funny but misplaced and coming from a perspective of defiance. If this was all the movie was then it would have been a fascinating example of an artist burning the bridge to their most successful franchise out of willful spite. However, if we had our own little focus group and asked what made the original Matrix so enjoyable, I doubt anyone would list, “entertainment industry satire and meta humor.”

The Matrix movies are well known for being a smarter, more ambitious viewing experience (“A thinking man’s action story”), blending philosophy and mysticism into anime-style action and kung-fu fights. There’s an intentional repetition here, built upon delivering something familiar and safe to audiences but with a “next gen” feel. We have a new Morpheus and a new Mr. Smith here, but did we require either? When they go through the motions of patterning themselves on characters of old, it feels strained, it feels gassed, and it’s another instance where Wachowski telegraphing to her audience, “Look, the studio demanded I bring back these characters, but I’ll be damned if I know what to do with them.” Morpheus has a little more story leverage as a catalyst for bringing Neo back to his path of enlightenment. Truth be told, I don’t really know half of what was happening in this movie, which lacked the elegant connectivity of the best action movies, linking cause and effect (the Merovingian would be proud of me) and pushing the movie forward to its inevitable conclusion. Even the prior movies felt more like the creators knew what was going on, even if the audience was lagging behind. With Resurrections, it feels like Wachowski and her screenwriters, novelist Dave Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) and Aleksandar Hermon (Sense 8 finale), have just given up trying to make sense of it all.

Another disappointment is the lack of any signature or memorable action sequences or, in the words of the Matrix round table, moments that “blew your mind.” The use of phones as transport in and out of the matrix has been replaced with mirror portals and doorways, which initially got my hopes up. There are such playful visual possibilities incorporating portals into action (see: Doctor Strange, even Matrix Reloaded), and I felt that Wachowski was up to the imaginative challenge. It too feels like another element that barely registers. The movie takes the anyone-can-become-an-Agent threat of the original trilogy and says, “What if instead of facing deadly Agents, it was just dumb zombies?” The new machines decide to rely upon a hive-mind system of grabbing whatever humans are in the vicinity and taking control of them into mindless foot soldiers. Let’s explore what a downgrade this is. The Agents were dangerous because they had powers that ordinary humans could not hope for, like the bullet dodging. In this movie, ordinary people are easily foiled and often a pathetic excuse for super-powered adversaries. The final act involves an escalation in numbers of the hive mind, but we’ve already been here with the multiple Agents Smiths of the sequels. There is one disturbing change-up where the machines realize how humans can just serve as canon fodder that is dark but a more effective attack. Even the requisite martial arts battles and gravity-defying wire work are humdrum this round.

If there is one thing that Resurrections does well it’s staking its identity out as a romance. Much of the second half prioritizes the relationship between Neo and Trinity, which was always taken for granted in the sequels. It was a romance of more utilitarian purpose, providing Neo with a love interest to motivate him to be saved in times of great peril. With Resurrections, the movie actually takes time to devote to Neo and Trinity as people with desires and what they would find appealing about the other. He’s not the savior of mankind, and she’s not his gateway to knowledge and empowerment. They’re portrayed as people, somewhat unhappy in their lives, and just hoping they might have another chance meeting at their shared coffee shop for one more electrifying conversation. The evolution of the movie places even more importance on this human connection, so I’m glad time has finally been given to exploring what it is that connects Trinity and Neo, especially if their love story is going to play as prominent a resolution to Resurrections. If you have never cared about Trinity and Neo as a couple, then you’ll likely be in for a disappointing second half.

From a technical standpoint, Resurrections is still a feast for the senses. The photography is moody and atmospheric. The musical score is pumping. The special effects are state-of-the-art. There are a lot of talented people working on this sequel. So why then does the movie feel so perfunctory? In some regard each Matrix sequel has felt this way, adding extraneous pieces onto an already perfect standalone film. Having re-watched both Reloaded and Revolutions again, I can affirmatively declare Resurrections to be the weakest Matrix entry yet. We were all a bit too harsh on the prior two Matrix movies, which fall short of capturing the original’s magic alchemy but bring the goods when it comes to memorable set pieces, eye-popping visuals, and narrative zigs instead of zags (It was undercutting audience expectations before it was cool). They are still a bit too stuffy and talk in circles, but there are definite Major Ideas percolating underneath. In contrast, Resurrections feels more powered by resentment, by Wachowski coming back to this world against her better wishes and judgements. Maybe we should have left things alone.

Nate’s Grade: C

On the Rocks (2020)

Sofia Coppola’s examination on the relationship between fathers and daughters feels like it would have been more entertaining had it gone for a more farcical tone. On the Rocks follows a struggling writer (Rashida Jones) who is questioning whether her husband (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair. Her partner in this makeshift investigation is her bigwig father (Bill Murray), a notorious Lothario whose own penchant for cheating and flirting with every woman has shaped his daughter’s perspective on relationships. If this is a comedy, I can’t tell you where the comedy parts are. The premise sounds rife with potential for hijinks and comedic mishaps trying to remain elusive. The father-daughter history is also ready for some combustible confrontations and perhaps some shades of earned empathy by the end. The problem is that the movie just sort of happens. It unfurls before your eyes, and those elements are there for the taking, but Coppola’s story never seems to really grab at any of them to build more sustained engagement. It feels like Coppola has taken a zany sitcom premise and adopted the tone of a somber indie exploring middle-class ennui. The amusement is under the oppressive force of melancholy. The dramatic substance also feels too dithering and without greater observation and exploration. Jones has some outstanding moments and Murray is at his best when he’s onscreen with her, his outwardly performative qualities shining light on a relative unspoken history that hangs over them. Even Marlon Wayans is good as the possibly philandering spouse. Really, the movie seems to be about the gnawing questions of doubt and suspicion and how quickly one can succumb to them. By the end, I don’t really know what Coppola was going for here. It’s a nice enough film, it holds your interest, and it has a few surprises, though I don’t know if they amount to much. On the Rocks feels like an early draft of a much better or much funnier movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Love and Monsters (2020)

Imaginative, quirky, and monstrously fun, Love and Monsters is a winning sci-fi monster movie and more evidence to the unique amusements provided in full from a Brian Duffield (Spontaneous, The Babysitter) story. In the near future, after blowing up a world-threatening asteroid, the ensuing chemical debris causes many lizards and insects to grow to world-threatening sizes, killing a majority of the population, and forcing the survivors to live underground in vaults. Our hero is Joel (Dylan O’Brien), a very Jessie Eisenberg-esque guy who isn’t so good at survival skills in this new world. His group looks at him like he’s a helpless kid who can’t defend himself. Joel discovers that his teenage crush, the girl he’s been writing letters to, is alive and he pledges to make the 80-mile trip on the surface to reunite with her. The resulting journey can be episodic but each section is impactful, each monster encounter is different and contributes to a fuller understanding to the world, and the character arc finds ways to surprise you, like when it acknowledges that Joel’s foolhardy romantic gesture is exactly that, him not fully accepting how the world has changed both he and the object of his desire. That sparkling creative voice of Duffield’s is alive and well throughout. His worlds feel well thought out, lived in, crazy but with purpose, and his characters are often teenagers with pointed attitude but they feel like characters rather than mouthpieces for overt stylized dialogue and pithy banter. O’Brien (The Maze Runner) is an interesting choice and gets to be far more neurotic and physically comedic than I’ve ever seen him. He’s an underdog that’s easy to root for. There are moments of wonder, moments of unexpected empathy, moments of suspense and terror, and plenty of moments of comic bemusement in the face of this crazy world. Joel befriends a very Woody Harreslon-esque father (Michael Rooker) with an adopted daughter in tow (the Zombieland character dynamics are pretty apparent but not a major detraction) and they form an enjoyable fractured family to help Joel become a better survivalist. I loved a small moment with a beaten down robot helper that manages to be sentimental as well as subverting sentimentality. The conclusion feels like a Walking Dead episode but it brings together many of the dangling storylines and proves satisfying for the character’s arc, a better understanding of the creatures in this world, and for Joel’s sense of self and community. The special effects are amazing for a movie that shockingly only had a tiny $28 million budget. Love and Monsters is a movie that makes the most of its time and money to tell a bigger story but one with enough wit, heart, and personality to draw you in and leave you happy for more post-apocalyptic monster adventures. All hail Duffield, king of spry and accessible quirk within the Hollywood system.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Underwater (2020)

It may be rather derivative but Underwater is a solid genre thriller that is streamlined to deliver an enjoyable 90-minute ride. You start off right in the middle of conflict, as we follow a group of undersea scientists and workers trying to escape from a deep sea drilling station under attack. The movie is atmospheric and effective because that deep underwater is basically like pitch black night. As they stumble from one clearly defined and varied set piece to another, the movie plays into the elemental fear of the dark, coupled with a rising claustrophobia. Kristen Stewart is genuinely terrific as a steely action leading lady and the other supporting roles, rounded out by the likes of Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, John Gallgher Jr., and Jessica Henwick, create a cast of characters that I was rooting for even if they aren’t exactly fleshed out. It’s a trade-off. More time could have been spent finding room for added characterization and history, but when we know the majority of these people are slated to die from monsters, it feels like the movie made the better choice to jump into the thick of things. Yes, this is a monster movie, as the drilling potentially unsettled an unknown species, and their creature design is nice and creepy. There’s a wonderful moment where a hungry monster swallows a person whole, like a snake unhinging its jaw to consume an antelope. In Act Three, Underwater gets even bigger in its scope of the threat, and I won’t spoil the circumstances but, suffice to say, it approached epic. For a PG-13 monster thriller released in January, the usual dumping ground of studio losers, this is a far better movie and a far more entertaining experience than you would be lead to believe. It’s nothing spellbinding but there should always be room for smart, effective B-movies performed with grit and acuity. It looks like it was based on an anime, from the setup to the monsters to especially the design of the heavy undersea suits that look like mech armor, but no. This is an original film. Well, it’s an original story building off the foundation of other movies, mostly from James Cameron. Underwater is a slickly made, tense, atmospheric little thriller that is worth the dive.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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