The 13-year-old Ryan Gosling shared joy in “The Mickey Mouse Club.” Something, though, must have broken in the twelve years between “The Notebook” and “La La Land.” The Canadian star appears determined to prove that he is capable of playing the role of a heartless killer. An actor who shone brightly in “Crazy Stupid Love” has been honing an inexpressive calm that borders on nihilism in recent films by Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”), the Danish filmmaker (“Only God Forgives”), and the Russo brothers (“The Gray Man”).
Like the attractive French superstar Alain Delon, who portrayed a psychopath with perfect cheekbones in “Purple Noon” and a hit guy with no discernible emotions in “Le Samourai,” Gosling aspires to be a leading man in the action genre. The result of Gosling’s low-key makeover is “The Gray Man,” an immensely costly and wonderfully performed action film in which Gosling portrays Six, an ex-con turned CIA assassin who is so adept at his job that he becomes a problem, placing him at the top of the agency’s kill list.
This is Anthony and Joe Russo’s (Avengers: Endgame) response to the James Bond franchise, which reached its end game, at least with Daniel Craig, in last year’s “No Time to Die” and is expected to gross over $200 million when it is released in theaters on July 15 and then on Netflix a week later. There are several similarities between that series and “The Gray Man” that just cannot be coincidental, but more on that in a minute. Finally, it has a villain as flamboyantly over-the-top as Gosling is modest in co-star (and ex-Captain America) Chris Evans.
Both portray professional killers who work outside of the law, hiding out in the “gray zone” where the CIA may claim plausible deniability for any deaths they may be responsible for. Both work for the same employer, the recently appointed CIA group head Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), but neither has a license to murder per se.
The unnamed Gosling character was recruited by veteran Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) for the experimental Sierra program shortly after his release from jail. The plan is to recruit convicted murderers and train them to become strategic assassins in exchange for a form of mandatory service to the government. Seemingly reckless and doomed from the start, the crime that placed Gosling and the Sierra Six in prison is revealed to be a comparatively moral one through a series of subtle hints and later, more overt flashbacks.
In spite of the fact that most of his killings are ordered from above and require no actual judgment on his part, Six (not to be confused with 007) is a murderer with a conscience. Conversely, Lloyd Hansen, played by Evans, is a contract killer who enjoys torturing his victims and who welcomes any chance to break the law.
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In the opening scene, which takes place at a glitzy New Year’s Eve party in fluorescent-lit Bangkok, Six and colleague agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) are tasked with eliminating a mark. The Russo Brothers have faith in their audience’s familiarity with this type of picture (the operation is reminiscent of the beginning of James Cameron’s “True Lies” and Netflix’s current “Red Notice”). Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon keeps a safe distance from the action, putting the spotlight on the choreography and staging rather than the gritty realism of a fistfight.
The script (by Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely) of “The Gray Man” relies heavily on the audience’s inherent knowledge of action movies and conspiracy thrillers in order to make implausible leaps of logic, such as when Six learns that he was instructed to kill Sierra Four. Carmichael is systematically eliminating the Sierra program’s assassins, and it appears that Fitzroy and bureau director Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard) have been removed from their positions. The movie’s MacGuffin is an incriminating USB drive that is passed to Six by Four before he can finish his task. The high-stakes game of hot potato has officially begun.
Audiences are not really worried about Six’s life, in contrast to the newest Bond chapter (which reversed the stakes on a virtually immortal hero, exposing him to be vulnerable after all). Fitzroy made it quite obvious from the beginning that he was a disposable resource. Six phones his former employer after he learns that his contract has expired, and he jokes, “I know there wasn’t some palm palms and 401(k) planned for me, but tell me you guys have some exit strategy.” His escape plan involves Lloyd Hansen, and the crazy guy won’t hesitate to kill Six and take the hard drive if he has to.
The plot isn’t very creative. Combine elements of “Shooter,” “John Wick,” and “Jason Bourne” with a “license to kill” premise, and you get the gist of this movie. Let’s not beat about the bush: “The Gray Man” is the most thrilling original action property Netflix has released since “Bright.” What makes it so exciting is the shades the ensemble brings to their characters and the tiny ways in which the Russos breakthrough where those other films fell short.
De Armas was one of the highlights of “No Time to Die,” despite his minor involvement in the film. The Russians here have given her a lot more responsibility. She can rescue Six in her cherry red Audi RS7 or use a rocket launcher to take down enemy helicopters. The page has been linked to the role of James Bond, so it would make sense to cast him in the role of a dashing movie director. Instead of the usual supervillain intent on global conquest, “The Gray Man” gives us something considerably scarier: This furthers our mistrust of peacekeeping organizations while giving us Evans, a crazed mercenary who is prepared to kill police, bystanders, and entire city blocks in his quest to eliminate Six.
Gosling seems to take everything in stride, maintaining as neutral a look as possible throughout (with the exception of two sequences in which he breaches the Noh mask to grin at Fitzroy’s adolescent niece, played by Julia Butters), who has been taken captive by Hansen). The film’s foreign set pieces, such as the Bangkok hit, the high-altitude extraction turned to escape, the Vienna double-cross, and the epic finale in Prague, where Six waits tied to a stone bench as the world’s deadliest assassins converge, prompting a crosstown battle on a runaway tram, are its greatest strengths. Even if only one of these moments is remarkable, “The Gray Man” is on par with double-you-know-who since it has a castle-smashing Croatian conclusion.
The film “The Gray Man” will premiere in cinemas on July 15, and it will be available on Netflix starting on July 22.