Ryan Gosling appeared on “The Mickey Mouse Club” when he was 13 years old. In the decade between “The Notebook” and “La La Land,” though, something must have broken. The Canadian star seems intent on persuading us that he can be a cold-blooded, level-headed, unsentimental killer.
Starting with Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” then the Danish director’s “Only God Forgives,” and now playing the title character in the Russo brothers
“The Gray Man,” an actor who once radiated charisma in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” has been perfecting an inexpressive cool that borders on nihilism, keeping his pulse steady and poker face fixed as he dispatches whoever stands in his path.
Gosling doesn’t just want to be an action star; he also wants to be the Hollywood version of Alain Delon, the attractive French classic who portrayed a sociopath with perfect cheekbones in “Purple Noon” and a kill guy with no evident emotions in “Le Samoura.”
“The Gray Man” is the culmination of Gosling’s low-key reinvention: an immensely expensive, wonderfully executed action film in which he portrays Six, an ex-con turned CIA assassin who is so skilled at his job that he becomes a burden and is placed at the top of the agency’s kill list.
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This is “Avengers: Endgame” directors Anthony and Joe Russo’s answer to the James Bond franchise (which reached its end game, with Daniel Craig at least, with last year’s “No Time to Die”).
Netflix will distribute the film first in theatres (on July 15) and then a week later on its streaming service. But more on that in a bit.
“The Gray Man” has the massive, global scope of that franchise, as well as a few unmistakable parallels.
In co-star (and former Captain America) Chris Evans, the film offers a villain as flamboyantly exaggerated as Ryan Gosling is quiet.
Both actors portray professional killers who operate outside the bounds of legality, lurking in the “grey zone” where the CIA has plausible deniability for whatever murders they perform. Both are acting at the behest of the same employer, the recently appointed CIA group head Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page). Neither has a license to kill in the strictest sense.
As part of the experimental Sierra program, Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) recruited the unnamed guy portrayed by Ryan Gosling upon his release from prison.
The concept is to convert convicted murderers into strategic assassins by granting them “freedom” in exchange for an obligation to serve the agency. Subtle hints and eventually, more explicit flashbacks suggest that the crime that landed Ryan Gosling’s Sierra Six in prison was a relatively moral one.
Six (not to be confused with 007) is a murderer with a conscience, despite the fact that the majority of his kills are ordered from above and require no actual judgment. In contrast, Lloyd Hansen, portrayed by Chris Evans, is a contract assassin with a taste for torture who welcomes the opportunity to break the rules.
In the film’s opening scene, which is set in fluorescent-lit Bangkok, Six and fellow agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) is instructed to eliminate a target at a ritzy New Year’s Eve party.
The Russos believe their audience has seen countless films similar to this (the operation echoes the opening of James Cameron’s “True Lies” and Netflix’s current “Red Notice”). Stephen F. Windon, the film’s cinematographer, captures the action from a distance, emphasizing the choreography and staging over the immersive, rough-and-tumble mechanics of a fistfight.
So much of “The Gray Man” relies on our inherent familiarity with action films and conspiracy thrillers, allowing the screenplay (credited to Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely) to take shortcuts and logic leaps over outlandish twists, such as Six’s realization that he’d been ordered to eliminate Sierra Four.
There appears to have been a regime shift within the agency: Fitzroy and bureau chief Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard) are out, and Carmichael is destroying the Sierra program killer by an assassin. Before Six can finish his task, Four gives him a USB drive containing incriminating evidence — the movie’s MacGuffin. The high-stakes game of hot potato thus commences.
In contrast to the most recent Bond film, in which the hero’s apparent invulnerability was undermined and he was revealed to be mortal, Six’s life is not a major concern for the audience.
Fitzroy made it quite obvious from the beginning that he was expendable. Once Six finds his contract has expired, he calls his old boss and jokes, “I know there weren’t any palm palms and 401(k)s in the works for me, but please tell me you have an exit strategy.” Lloyd Hansen is his exit strategy, and this lunatic will stop at nothing to kill Six and take the drive.
There is nothing really innovative about the tale. Take a little bit of “Shooter,” a lot of “John Wick,” and a sprinkling of Jason Bourne, add them to the license-to-kill formula, and you get a general idea. What makes “
The Gray Man” is exciting — and let’s not beat about the bush: This is the most exciting original action property Netflix has produced since “Bright” — are the nuances the ensemble brings to their characters and the small ways in which the Russos excel where those other films failed.
In a too-minor supporting part, de Armas was one of “No Time to Die’s” greatest aspects. Here, the Russos assign her a great deal more work.
She is capable of destroying helicopters with a rocket launcher or rescuing Six in a cherry-red Audi RS7.
In a similar vein, speculations have suggested that Page could fill Bond’s shoes; hence, why not cast him as the film’s elegant puppetmaster? Instead of presenting us with yet another iteration of a supervillain bent on world conquest,
“The Gray Man” presents us with something much more terrifying: It promotes our mistrust in peacekeeping organizations and appoints a mercenary (Evans) who is willing to kill police, civilians and entire city blocks in an effort to eliminate Six.
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Except for two sequences in which he breaks the Noh mask to grin at Fitzroy’s teenage niece (Julia Butters), who has been taken hostage by Hansen, Gosling maintains a passive demeanor throughout.
That’s a cheap child-endangerment detail (again, no worse than “No Time to Die”) in an otherwise serious-minded blockbuster, which is strongest when serving international set-pieces: the Bangkok hit, a high-altitude extraction-turned-escape, a Vienna double-cross, and the epic showstopper in Prague, where Six sits handcuffed on a stone bench as the world’s deadliest assassins converge, sparking a crosstown A great action film might provide just one of these scenes, but “The Gray Man” accomplishes all four, plus the castle-smashing Croatian conclusion, putting it on par with double-who?