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In ‘The Gray Man,’ Ryan Gosling Tries to Be an Action Hero

The ‘La La Land’ actor has distinguished himself by resisting the role of muscle-bound, gun-toting movie star. His mediocre new Netflix thriller suggests there’s a reason why he’s better playing against type

It wasn’t until watching The Gray Man that I realized Ryan Gosling has never done an action movie. He’s been in films with action elements — everything from the ultra-cool L.A. thriller Drive to the 1970s buddy-cop comedy The Nice Guys to the sci-fi stunner Blade Runner 2049 — but his new flick is the genuine article. Playing an expert assassin for the U.S. government known simply as Sierra Six, Gosling has at last gotten his own John Wick or Mission: Impossible, traveling across the planet, staying ahead of the mercenaries seeking to kill him and engaging in all types of high-octane action scenes.

It’s something Gosling has been interested in doing for a while, apparently. Promoting The Gray Man recently, the Oscar-nominated actor admitted, “You know, I always wanted to make an action film, because they made me fall in love with movies. It just took me a long time to find the right one, you know. [This movie] is like the films I grew up loving. It has like the 1980s and 1990s action films [vibe], it’s fun, the characters [have a] sense of humor about the situations. It’s an escapist movie, and I really liked the character.”

Remarkably, The Gray Man is Gosling’s first movie of any kind since 2018’s First Man, where he reunited with La La Land filmmaker Damien Chazelle to play Neil Armstrong, the soft-spoken astronaut who would become the first human to walk on the moon, focusing on the man’s stoicism rather than trying to deify him. It was the type of performance we’ve come to expect from Gosling, who has spent his career actively resisting playing outright good guys. His characters are usually bottled up or quick with a joke, uncomfortable being in the spotlight. (In Drive, the guy didn’t even have a name.) But in The Gray Man, he meets the demands of the action blockbuster halfway, trying his best to be a proper hero in the vein of a Jason Bourne. It doesn’t quite work, mostly because of the deeply mediocre movie he’s in.

The film, which opens in theaters tomorrow, streaming on Netflix starting July 22nd, is another algorithm-driven action movie, yet one more example of how the studio makes films that sorta resemble real films — kinda like if you asked a computer to replicate all the components of a motion picture. The Gray Man never stops moving, jumping across continents and constantly thrusting Sierra Six into new hair-raising situations. Gosling fights dudes in trains, he fights them while plummeting from an exploding cargo plane. He punches, he shoots, he dashes through busy cities, occasionally getting hit by moving cars. He nearly drowns, he gets stabbed a bunch, he has to make a bomb MacGyver-style. And he does it all with a “What, me worry?” attitude — Sierra Six is constantly in mortal danger, but he never loses his cool.

If you think you’ve seen The Gray Man before, you absolutely have. Like Extraction or The Last Days of American Crime or Spenser Confidential or Project Power, it’s an utterly generic Netflix action flick boasting fake-looking action sequences that are cranked up to 11, throwing so much stuff at you — fight scenes, jokes, scene-chewing supporting actors, frenetic flashbacks — that you’ll feel like you’ve been sufficiently entertained, or at the very least thoroughly exhausted. 

Based on a book by Tom Clancy acolyte Mark Greaney, The Gray Man is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who made several of the big Avengers movies and have subsequently delivered two over-caffeinated films that are clearly meant to show off their skills. Their 2021 true-life drama Cherry, starring Spider-Man himself (Tom Holland), rifled through film-school-obvious allusions to cinematic classics in the vain hope that those movies’ greatness would rub off on their deeply shallow portrait of a drug addict and war veteran slowly unraveling. The Gray Man is less infuriating because the subject matter isn’t as serious, but it’s just as junky and hand-me-down — it’s a movie built out of the discarded pieces of other, better movies. Everybody involved hopes you’ll be too distracted by the flashing lights and loud noises to notice, though.

Gosling, on the chase

The plot is about what you’d imagine. Sierra Six is such a top-notch agent that, of course, his bosses want him killed once he learns The Horrible Truth about his elite program. There’s only one man who can dispatch someone as expert as Sierra Six, and that’s Lloyd Hansen, played by Captain America himself (Chris Evans). Lloyd used to be in the CIA but, well, he was a loose cannon, engaging in unspeakably monstrous activities that got him booted — which is why Sierra Six’s crooked superiors assign Lloyd to take him out. As far removed from the earnest Steve Rogers as is humanly possible, Lloyd relishes being a demented thug, and Evans seems to be having a ball being so bad.

Unlike his co-stars, which include Ana de Armas as a CIA agent who helps Sierra Six, Gosling hasn’t done a would-be blockbuster on this level. (“What I didn’t realize was just how many people it takes to make an action hero,” he said in that interview. “It looks like it’s me doing all those things, and yes, I do some of it, but we had an incredible stunt team, and an incredible special effects team.”) This requires him having to let go of some of the serene detachment that often imbues his roles. If anything, Gosling’s characters are notable for their inactivity, for the way they don’t break a sweat, as if they disdain the clichés of the action genre so much they’re determined to stay above the fray. (The best example of this was his follow-up film with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, the divisive Only God Forgives, which was loudly booed when it screened at Cannes because it was such an anti-action movie, Gosling’s character drifting along on his own quirky, somnolent wavelength.)

But in The Gray Man, Gosling dives in, firing guns and running for his life like a typical action hero. Still, that detachment remains: Sierra Six rarely boils over, bantering sarcastically with whoever crosses his path, whether friend or foe. True, when he takes off his shirt, he looks like every other jacked movie star, but Gosling’s perpetual “whatever” expression suggests Sierra Six has never spent a moment admiring his bod in the mirror. He plays the guy as a begrudging ass-kicker, an attitude that makes sense considering that Sierra Six was recruited for this government program a long time ago as a way to get out of prison. (Why was he incarcerated? Oh, you know you’ll have to sit through most of the movie to have that little mystery revealed — and that it won’t be worth it once you get there.)

Big action movies require big guns

In recent weeks, Gosling has garnered less attention for The Gray Man than for his next film, Barbie, in which he’ll play Ken alongside Margot Robbie’s Barbie — especially after that first himbo-rific photo of him in character was released. Barbie would seem to play to his strengths, allowing Gosling to poke fun at his own good looks while commenting on Ken’s pretty, pointless essence. Gosling is often at his best when his characters have an ironic distance from their story — even in Drive and La La Land, he exuded a subtle self-awareness that alerted audiences that there was something faintly ridiculous about these men, that their studied cool belied something more emotional underneath that they were trying to conceal. He wasn’t mocking the movies as much as he was mocking the idea of guys projecting a suave self-confidence that they assumed made them bulletproof. Gosling always made sure the suit of armor falls away.

There’s a similar attempt to show a more vulnerable side to Sierra Six, but The Gray Man is too invested in delivering a big, dumb action extravaganza to make room for much nuance. (Speaking of clichés, the Russo brothers saddle Sierra Six with an adorable, smart-ass little girl, played by Julia Butters, whom he must protect, their growing bond proof that, see, he really is a good guy.) But Gosling is more than convincing as a cut-rate Bourne, displaying no degree of smirk as he takes out the baddies and, eventually, engages in a mano-a-mano battle royale with Lloyd. More so than, say, Chris Pratt, you buy him as buff.

Still, if Gosling has seemed uncomfortable playing the square-jawed superhero, he’s always been able to convey a mournful quality within his heroic characters, turning Drive’s taciturn driver and Blade Runner 2049’s Officer K into complicated figures who can’t find a home in this world. He wields those same melancholy eyes in The Gray Man, which doesn’t have very much use for them. The Russos plug everything into the algorithm, allowing for very little humanity or surprise. Gosling tries to find the joke in this lumbering spectacle — but despite his best intentions, it turns out the joke is on him.