At age 13, Ryan Gosling was spreading cheer on “The Mickey Mouse Club.” But something must have snapped in the dozen years between “The Notebook” and “La La Land.” The Canadian heartthrob seems committed to convincing us that he can be a cold-blooded, even-keeled, unsentimental killer. Starting with Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” followed by 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 stable and poker face fixed as he offs whatever adversaries come his way.
Gosling doesn’t just want to be an action star; he wants to be the Hollywood version of Alain Delon, the handsome French icon who played a sociopath with perfect cheekbones in “Purple Noon” and a hit man with no visible emotions in “Le Samouraï.” “The Gray Man” is the payoff of Gosling’s low-key reinvention: an incredibly expensive, stunningly executed action vehicle in which he plays Six, an ex-con-turned-CIA assassin who’s so good at his job that he becomes a kind of liability, landing him at the top of the agency’s kill list.
A reportedly $200 million whopper that Netflix will release first in theaters (on July 15) and then a week later on its streaming service, 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, in last year’s “No Time to Die”). “The Gray Man” has the huge, globe-trotting heft of that franchise and a few can’t-be-accidental overlaps — but more on that in a moment. Most important, in co-star (and ex-Captain America) Chris Evans, it has a villain who’s as flamboyantly over-the-top as Gosling is understated.
Both play professional killers who operate outside the limits of what is legally acceptable — lurking off the grid, in the shadowy “gray zone” that offers the CIA plausible deniability for any murders they commit. Neither has a license to kill, exactly, though both do so at the behest of the same boss: newly appointed CIA group chief Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page).
Gosling’s nameless character was recruited straight out of prison by old-timer Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) as part of the experimental Sierra program. The idea: Take convicted killers and turn them into strategic assassins, offering them “freedom” in exchange for a kind of obligatory service to the agency. It sounds like a reckless, doomed-to-fail idea, though subtle clues — and later, more overt flashbacks — reveal that the crime that landed Gosling’s Sierra Six behind bars was a relatively moral one.
Six (not to be confused with 007) is a killer with a conscience, even if most of his hits are ordered from above, requiring no real judgment on his part. On the other hand, Evans’ Lloyd Hansen is a contract killer with an appetite for torture who relishes any opportunity to flout the rules.
In the film’s first hit, set in fluorescent-lit Bangkok, Six and fellow agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) have been ordered to take out a mark at a flashy New Year’s Eve party. The Russos trust that their audience has seen a million films like this (the operation recalls the opening of James Cameron’s “True Lies” and even Netflix’s recent “Red Notice”). Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon shoots the action from a distance, emphasizing the choreography and staging over the immersive, rough-and-tumble logistics of a fist fight.
So much of “The Gray Man” depends on the its-in-our-DNA familiarity with action films and conspiracy thrillers, allowing the screenplay (credited to Joe Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) to take short cuts and logic leaps over far-fetched twists, like Six’s discovery that he’d been ordered to take out Sierra Four. It seems there’s been a regime change at the agency: Fitzroy and bureau chief Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard) are out, and Carmichael is dismantling the Sierra program one assassin at a time. Before Six completes his assignment, Four passes him a USB drive with incriminating evidence — the movie’s MacGuffin. And so the game of high-stakes hot potato begins.
Unlike the latest Bond installment (which subverted the stakes on an essentially invincible hero, proving him to be mortal after all), audiences are not seriously concerned for Six’s life. From the start, Fitzroy made clear that he was “disposable.” Once Six realizes his contract is up, he calls his old boss and quips, “I know there wasn’t some palm trees and 401(k) planned for me, but tell me you guys had some exit strategy.” Lloyd Hansen is his exit strategy, and this nutter will stop at nothing to snuff Six and steal the drive.
There’s nothing terribly original about the storytelling. Take a little of “Shooter,” a lot of “John Wick,” add a dash of Jason Bourne, shaken (but not stirred) into the license-to-kill formula, and you’ve got the basic idea. What makes “The Gray Man” exciting — and let’s not beat around the bush: This is the most exciting original action property Netflix has delivered since “Bright” — are the shades the ensemble bring to their characters and the little ways in which the Russos come through where those other films fell short.
In a too-small supporting role, de Armas was one of the best things about “No Time to Die.” Here, the Russos give her considerably more to do. Whether blasting helicopters with a rocket launcher or rescuing Six in a cherry red Audi RS7, she’s up to the task. In another overlap, rumors have hinted that Page could fill Bond’s shoes — so why not cast him as the movie’s dapper puppetmaster? Instead of giving us the umpteenth variation on a supervillain bent on world domination, “The Gray Man” serves us something far scarier: It reinforces our distrust in peacekeeping institutions, while deputizing a lunatic mercenary (in Evans) willing to take out cops, civilians and entire city blocks in his bid to nix Six.
Gosling takes it all in stride, keeping his expressions as passive as possible throughout — apart from two scenes in which he breaks the Noh mask to wink at Fitzroy’s teenage niece (Julia Butters), taken hostage by Hansen. That’s a cheap child-endangerment detail (again, no worse than “No Time to Die”) in an otherwise serious-minded blockbuster outing, which is strongest when serving up 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 to a stone bench while the world’s deadliest assassins converge, sparking a crosstown firefight on a runaway tram. A memorable action movie might deliver just one of these scenes; “The Gray Man” pulls off all four, plus the castle-smashing Croatian finale, putting it on par with double-you-know-who.
“The Gray Man“ will be released in theaters July 15, before landing on Netflix on July 22.