When last we saw Ryan Gosling on the big screen, he was staring up sadly at the moon in First Man. (Later in the film, he stood on the moon and stared sadly at Earth.) Gosling was in one of his saturnine phases back then, quiet and recessive in both First Man and Blade Runner 2049. (As he was in earlier years, in Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines and more.) Those performances were a far cry from the arch snap, the animated vigor, that had given life to some of his early, career-boosting roles.
So it’s a pleasure to watch him in The Gray Man (from First to Gray—the story of life, really), a big dumb action movie (in theaters now, on Netflix July 22) which marks Gosling’s return to film after four years away. He gets to quip and do stunts and make nice with a kid. Sure, he’s playing a haunted assassin with a troubled past—but some of his old razzle-dazzle still manages to shine through that muscled gloom. The Gray Man is a welcome reminder of Gosling’s lighter charms, ones he really should show off more often—and maybe will, in next year’s Barbie.
The Gray Man is otherwise notable for its sheer scale. It’s Netflx’s most expensive movie to date, a spectacular from guys who are well versed in maximalism: Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed the last two Avengers movies. In some ways, The Gray Man is just another Marvel movie, only without magic stones or aliens. That same snarky-serious energy is there; the same super-human-ish strength and stamina; the same glancing attention paid to the wake of civilian destruction left by the film’s heroes and villains.
Gosling is the hero, called Six, named so by the CIA operation that plucked him out of prison (he’s there for noble reasons, the film is careful to explain) and trained him in the art of covert killing. One mission, a fireworks-lit debacle at a Bangkok New Year’s Eve party, leads him into a web of intrigue involving the very people who pay his salary (and keep him out of the clink). This is a familiar setup for anyone who’s seen a Bourne movie or myriad other films about super soldiers who suddenly find themselves out in the cold.
But The Gray Man is a much more free-wheeling film than the somber Bourne franchise, a fact best evidenced by the presence of Chris Evans, who plays a ruthless, wisecracking mercenary named Lloyd. With his slicked back hair, velvet loafers with no socks, tight shirts, and little mustache, Lloyd could be a creaky homophobic joke—or a decidedly fresher joke about Love Island-type fuckbois. Whatever the gag is, Evans sells it hard, seeming to relish, as he did in Knives Out, the opportunity to play someone standing directly opposite Captain America’s tediously steadfast morals.
He and Gosling don’t have many scenes together, but the film is clearly built toward their inevitable showdown. When it arrives, the big fight is satisfyingly crunchy. But the way the scene is framed, you’d think filmgoing audiences have been waiting for years to see Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans go at it. (In a fighting sense! In a fighting sense.) I don’t think that’s really the case, so the movie’s air of consequence might be a bit misplaced, or overestimated. Like much of The Gray Man, this scene isn’t quite as huge and cool and grand as it thinks it is. It’s fun, though.
As are the other action sequences in this bullet-strewn movie. The showcase set piece is a street chase through Prague, one that almost simulates the breakneck speed of a Mission: Impossible stunt-fest. Though, The Gray Man’s reliance on computer-made effects stifles the suspense some. Too often we can see the digital fuzz of a wisp of smoke, or the janky relationship between a human body and the green screen behind it. The Russos’ ambitions here are respectable—they’re going for Mission: Impossible meets Michael Bay, maybe. But they remain too married to the technologies that made the Avengers movies possible but aren’t as necessary here.
At least they also recognize the timeless, analog pleasures of movie stars doing their thing. Once again, Ana de Armas proves a nimble action star, ably providing support for Six as the CIA closes in. Interestingly, their dynamic doesn’t have a romantic tang to it—it’s more collegial than sexual. So far, anyway. I’d imagine there is some wishful thinking about this becoming a franchise, just as Mark Greaney’s original Gray Man novel (from which this movie diverges greatly) spawned sequels. We’ll see if Netflix figures their $200 million gambit paid off. I would welcome another adventure, if only to keep Gosling busy for a bit longer, further delaying another sink back into the moody monosyllabism that has so long enticed him.