clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Toward a Unified Theory of the Russo Brothers

From ‘Infinity War’ to ‘The Gray Man,’ the writer-director duo has fetched some of the largest budgets and box office totals in recent history. But what does a Hollywood cast in their image stand for?

Getty Images/Netflix/Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

In The Gray Man, Chris Evans plays a sadistic, off-the-grid black ops specialist named Lloyd Hansen. He’s introduced while he’s interrogating a prisoner with the help of some jumper cables and only gets nastier from there, abducting an innocent, plucky preteen girl (who, for extra sympathy cred, has a pacemaker), twisting off Billy Bob Thornton’s fingernails with pliers, antagonizing his coworkers, and mobilizing multiple teams of black-clad assassins to eliminate Ryan Gosling’s heroic secret agent Court Gentry, a.k.a. Sierra Six.

Lloyd’s self-admitted struggles with impulse control are contrasted by his immaculate wardrobe; he’s a natty little dictator down to his fascist mustache. And Evans, clearly relishing the opportunity to inhabit a role at the other end of the spectrum from the ever-virtuous Captain Steve Rogers, acts the living hell out of the villainous role.

Which, sadly, is the problem. The Gray Man is a living hell of an action thriller, and Evans’s bad-boy performance, however studiously paved with good intentions, occupies the ninth circle of the inferno. Some actors are naturally brilliant at playing degenerates, but Evans’s strident, self-satisfied peacocking reeks of effort; he’s desperately flexing atrophied comedic muscles to go with the real ones he used as Captain America. He’s so determined to make Lloyd an iconically obnoxious bad guy that he crosses the Rubicon into the territory of abject unbearableness. As a result, Gosling—who conjured up some much funnier sleazeball shtick in The Nice Guys—comes off better simply by underplaying. Cast as a guy with the skill set to turn himself into a ghost, he occupies his own expensive star vehicle with something resembling likable self-effacement. Like his endlessly resourceful character, the actor figures out how to make a clean getaway.

Budgeted at a reported $200 million and released in the wake of Netflix’s promise to be more judicious with its resources—meaning no more blank checks for “vanity projects” by Martin Scorsese, but probably Red Notice 2The Gray Man is massively scaled in a way that exposes the paltry level of invention and imagination at its core. Size matters, but only if you wield it with purpose. In narrative terms, The Gray Man (adapted from a novel by Mark Greaney) is a flaccid string of genre clichés. For starters: Six, who was indoctrinated into the CIA as a young man as an alternative to serving an extended prison sentence, is an ex-con with a heart of gold. And, wouldn’t you know it, the only crime he committed was protecting his younger brother from an abusive parent. His special set of skills includes a conscience. That aforementioned girl with a pacemaker? She’s like a daughter to him. And so on.

Looking to bring down the bad apples littering his wing of the military-industrial complex—and maybe to emancipate himself from a job he wryly compares to the myth of Sisyphus—Six jets around the world trying to offload an incriminating and encrypted hard drive. It’s the same MacGuffin as in Mission Impossible, the Bourne movies, and many other superior espionage thrillers, except more boring. Our hero is aided in his insurgency by a sympathetic fellow agent, played by Ana de Armas, who’s having considerably less fun throwing hands in this movie than she did in No Time to Die. By way of inventory, Six blows up a New Year’s bash in Bangkok, catches—and crashes—a flight out of Azerbaijan, and skulks cloak-and-dagger-style around Berlin; after arriving in Prague, he ends up at the center of a firefight that demolishes the majority of the city’s high-tech streetcar system and tangles with a Tamil badass played by the Indian actor Dhanush (who quietly gives the best performance in the movie).

The carnage is costly and every so often, there’s a nicely choreographed bit of violence, like when Six dispatches a henchman after spotting his reflection in the window of a moving train. But mostly, The Gray Man is a grind. By the time Evans and Gosling are ready to throw down in hand-to-hand combat and Lloyd pauses to tell his rival they’re really not so different after all, the banality becomes almost self-parodic. It’s as if the film has been hijacked by a sentient screenwriting program.

Which means that codirectors Anthony and Joe Russo aren’t programmers, or maybe project managers. It’s ironic that the brothers like using profitous desk jockeys as foils in their unfathomably expensive blockbusters, because as directors, their style is strictly middle management. 2022 has been full of big-budget movies with at least some semblance of personality: Sam Raimi’s endearingly idiosyncratic Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness; Joseph Kosinski’s brilliantly efficient Top Gun: Maverick; even Taika Waititi’s smugly goofy Thor: Love and Thunder. On the contrary, the Ohio-born Russos prove that it’s possible for filmmakers working with brand-name movie stars, top-tier stunt teams, and no less than four credited editors to somehow be distinctively bland.

After debuting with the slick, amiable 2002 caper comedy Welcome to Collinwood, the Russos did efficient, Emmy-winning directorial work for Arrested Development and then Happy Endings, two excellent sitcoms that benefited hugely from their contributions. On the small screen, their gift for swift cause-and-effect cutting and uptempo ensemble dialogue made them a hot commodity, and yet their ultimate transition into two of the most commercially successful American filmmakers is hard to reconcile—not least of all because, after arriving at the professional summit, the Russos developed Hollywood’s worst contemporary case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. It is perhaps because the Russos suspect that their films don’t say all that much that they keep speaking up on their behalf. Promoting Avengers: Endgame in 2019, Joe gave Indiewire some pro forma quotes about the film’s why-so-serious mandate to make Marvel’s characters confront “the finality of death”—before pivoting to singing the praises of the Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni, director of elliptical masterpieces like L’Avventura and Red Desert.

On the one hand, having the codirector of a movie that ended up grossing close to $3 billion worldwide singing the praises of a seminal cinematic modernist was a welcome invitation for superhero movie fans to check out a movie made before Iron Man. On the other, comparing Endgame’s blurry, apocalyptic CGI-scapes to Antonioni’s use of environment to “[reflect] the psychology of his characters” was a Mr. Fantastic–level stretch. For a certain cinephile contingent, these comments reflected something more insidious than mere, well-intentioned hubris. In a year when Scorsese was pilloried for daring to suggest in a New York Times editorial that Marvel’s dominance was having negative effects on film literacy and appreciation, the Russos’ desire to have things both ways—to craft global crowd-pleasers while making chin-stroking allusions to Criterion Collection stalwarts—was distinctly off-putting. (Ditto Joe’s cameo in Endgame as a bereaved gay survivor of the Snap bemoaning the vaporization of his partner, which was used mostly to show that Captain America is a good guy for offering up a chiselled shoulder to cry on.)

The best of the Russos’ movies for Marvel was probably 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was enjoyably tough and muscular as action filmmaking, and included a high-speed, downtown shoot-out that retrospectively shames anything in The Gray Man. The Winter Soldier also had the distinct advantage of coming out before the studio’s totalizing, multiplatform dominance had gone from feeling like a fascinating phenomenon into a trap. To return to the idea of the brothers as project managers, The Winter Soldier was a pivotal and intricate cog in the overall Avengers machine, setting up the complex, eminently spinoffable dichotomy between S.H.I.E.LD. and Hydra. It also successfully introduced a layer of political intrigue to the franchise, sounding welcome notes of institutional skepticism. The casting of Robert Redford—for several decades Hollywood’s most eminent liberal crusader, and a decorated holdover of the New Hollywood—as a highly-placed fascist spy was clever, and the Sundance Kid held up his end with a spryly sinister performance.

At the time, Redford commented to Entertainment Weekly that he “wanted to experience this new form of filmmaking that’s taken over where you have kind of cartoon characters brought to life through high technology.” It was an endorsement of the Russos’ project that now looks like a warning about the flattening effect their work has had on the American cinematic landscape. Way back in 2004’s The Incredibles, Brad Bird sagely observed via his pimply, vindictive villain Syndrome that “when everyone’s super, no one will be.” The satirical subtext of The Incredibles, carried over from Alan Moore’s epochal graphic novel Watchmen, was that an endless proliferation of comic-book material would dilute its potency. The MCU’s rallying cry of “Avengers assemble!” became a dubious call to arms, cramming the screen with more brand-name characters than anybody could want or need.

If there’s a character in the MCU who truly represents the Russos’ ethos, it’s not the virtuous Steve Rogers—or even that canny project manager Nick Fury, overseeing various divisions with ruthless efficiency—but Josh Brolin’s Thanos, whose sincere desire to “bring balance” to the universe by thinning out an overcrowded herd has disastrous consequences. At this point, the only thing more certain than death or taxes is that Marvel’s next phase is coming; meanwhile, the prospects (theatrical or otherwise) of almost any movie made outside of that sphere are shadowed by doubt. But don’t worry about it, guys: In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Joe addressed this disparity and tried to rationalize it by explaining that a filmmaker can “use business-focused content to support more personal projects.”

Leaving aside the fact that Antonioni probably never called his work the Italian word for “content,” the idea that “personal projects” can now only be made by those who’ve proved their box office bona fides is hard to swallow. The Russos themselves put their weight and mentorship behind Everything Everywhere All at Once, a movie whose inspiring commercial success contradicts their comments, in the same interview, that theatrical exhibition is an elitist or out-of-touch model. “There aren’t a lot of people that could have gotten that movie through the system in the way that we did,” boasted Anthony, a fact which is to the brothers’ credit even as the Daniels’ inventive (and palpably personal) sci-fi thriller mostly shames their output.

The Russos’ own attempt to cross over in the other direction was 2021’s Cherry, a crime thriller about an Oxy-popping Army vet with PTSD starring Tom Holland. Directly addressing the audience via a complicitous voice-over borrowed from A Clockwork Orange and set in a garish hollowed-out Bush-era wasteland splattered with corporate logos, the film means to be an indictment of American psychosis. Yet it consistently mistakes cynicism for conviction: The Russos are so determined to alienate the viewer that they become part of the problem. After crafting so many immense crowd-pleasers, the brothers were surely eager to get down and dirty, and yet nothing sticks: not Holland’s strained sardonic disaffection; not his romance with Ciara Bravo’s emotionally damaged hard case, Emily; and certainly not its metamorphosis into a millennial Bonnie and Clyde trying to fuse thrills to tragedy. “It’s as if all of this were built on nothing, and nothing were holding all of this together,” Holland muses at one point, inadvertently (and helpfully) providing the last word on his own conceptually flimsy movie.

But at least Cherry’s trying to score some points, as opposed to The Gray Man, where the ostensible critique of the CIA and its methods is undermined by the lack of anything like ideological or geopolitical specificity. Speaking to Time, the Russos claimed to be “[addressing] an issue that we’re struggling with in the world right now: individualism versus community.” But it’s hard to see how a movie produced so anonymously—and with one eye at all times on the desires of the popular audience—can stake a claim to any sort of real commentary.

It’s not enough to point out that the Russos like stories that pit optimism against cynicism (a dynamic that admittedly works well when Robert Downey Jr. is the wisecracking devil’s advocate). It’s maybe truer to observe that the ultimate optimism of a movie like Endgame, with its crypto-religious climax in which Tony Stark martyrs himself to absolve our and Thanos’s sins and selflessly resurrects the disappeared like nothing happened (so much for the “finality of death”), is a front for a very particular sort of cynicism, one where an endless stream of product is sold as a simple case of supply matching demand. (Is there any contemporary movie title less accurate than Endgame?)

Near the end of the Hollywood Reporter interview, Joe Russo draws a comparison between his movies and U2. He argues that his own youthful love-hate with Bono and Co. was an expression of a cynicism he’s since outgrown. “They were the biggest band in the world, and I was like, ‘I hate U2. I’m sick of U2,’” he recalls. “That was just my ego trying to define myself against the masses.” The case he makes is that, in the end, the best things are ultimately made for the most people; call it how to stop worrying and learn to love How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. “You’re talking about movies that 10-year-olds are weeping over and begging to go see,” he adds, by way of defending his and his brother’s multibillion-dollar empire. Joe’s probably being sincere, but the argument is also telling. After all, his point of reference is a band whose 2014 album ended up on every person’s iPhone, whether they wanted it or not.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.