The last time we saw Ryan Gosling on the big screen, he stared sadly at the moon in First Man. (Later in the film, he stood on the Moon and stared sadly at Earth.) Gosling was then in one of his Saturnian phases, calm and recessive in First Man and Blade Runner 2049. (As he was the previous years, in Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines, among others). His performances were very far from the ardor, the vigor which had given life to certain leading roles which made his career take off.
So it's a treat to see him in The Gray Man, a great light-hearted action flick (on Netflix July 22) which marks Gosling's return to filmmaking after a four-year absence. He has the right to joke, to do stunts and to be nice to a child. Sure, he's playing the role of a haunted assassin with a murky past, but some of his yesteryear glare still manages to shine through this brawny gloom. The Gray Man is a welcome reminder of Gosling's lighter charms that he really should show more often – and maybe will show in Barbie next year.
Sarcastic and serious energy
The Gray Man is otherwise remarkable for its scale. It's Netflx's most expensive film to date, a spectacular achievement by the men of maximalism: Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed the last two Avengers films. In some ways, The Gray Man is just like any other Marvel movie, but without the magic stones or the aliens. There's the same sarcastic and earnest energy, the same superhuman strength and stamina, the same attention to the trail of civil destruction left by the film's heroes and villains.
Gosling is the hero, called Six, named after the CIA operation that got him out of prison (he's there for noble reasons, the movie takes care to explain) and trained him to art of clandestine murder. A mission debacle amidst the fireworks of a New Year's Eve party in Bangkok draws him into a web of intrigue involving the people who pay his salary (and keep him out of jail). This setup is familiar to anyone who's seen a Bourne movie or myriad other films about super soldiers who suddenly find themselves in the shadows.
But The Gray Man is a much freer film than the grim Bourne franchise, as evidenced by the presence of Chris Evans, who plays a ruthless and sarcastic mercenary named Lloyd. With his slicked back hair, sockless velvet loafers, tight shirts and little mustache, Lloyd could be one squeaky homophobic prank. Whatever the gag, Evans sells it wholeheartedly, seeming to relish, as he did in Knives Out, the opportunity to play someone who directly opposes Captain America's dull, unwavering morality.
The Russo Brothers
Evans and Gosling don't have many scenes together, but the film is clearly built towards their inevitable confrontation. When she arrives, the big fight is satisfying and crunchy. But the way the scene is framed, you'd think audiences have been waiting years to see Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans go head-to-head. Like much of The Gray Man, this scene isn't as big, cool, and grand as it makes it out to be. But she is fun.
So are the other action sequences in this bullet-filled film. The centerpiece is a chase through the streets of Prague, which almost simulates the frantic pace of a Mission: Impossible. However, The Gray Man's reliance on synthetic effects dampens the suspense somewhat. Too often we can see the digital blur of a wisp of smoke, or the blur between a human body and the green screen behind it. The Russos' ambitions are respectable: they may want to do a crossover between Mission: Impossible and Michael Bay. But they remain too attached to the technologies that made the Avengers films possible but are not essential here.
At least they also recognize the timeless, analog pleasures of movie stars doing their thing. Once again, Ana de Armas proves to be a nimble action movie star, deftly supporting Six as the CIA closes in. Interestingly, their dynamic isn't romantic, it's more collegial than sexual. So far, anyway. I imagine some would like this movie to become a franchise, much like Mark Greaney's original novel Gray Man (from which this movie departs a lot), which spawned sequels. We'll see if Netflix reckons their $200 million bet paid off. I would welcome another adventure, if only to occupy Gosling a little longer, thus delaying the return to the whimsical monosyllabism that so long seduced him.
Author: Michael Zippo
Sources: VanityFair, IO Donna