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The Gray Man Goes Too Far with the Stoic-Spy Cliché

Ryan Gosling, like Brad Pitt before him, has succumbed to Hollywood’s “cool guy” trap again and again.

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As a filmmaker, Ryan Gosling has always relied on his ability to maintain a calm demeanor. In the tense 2011 thriller Drive, in which he played an anonymous stunt driver who is cool behind the wheel but monosyllabic in conversation, he became one of his most recognizable roles. A “replicant” created to be emotionless was Officer K’s character in Blade Runner 2049. While playing astronaut Neil Armstrong in the biopic First Man, actor Harrison Ford played him as cold and aloof, ready to face his work rather than any human connection. That said, each of those films included a complex character and genuine story stakes, and an internal peculiarity that he couldn’t help but deal with. In Netflix’s action film The Gray Man, his newest lead role, he has none of that.

Gosling returns to the role of a man with no name, this time as a CIA assassin known only as “Sierra Six,” who kills with merciless precision. Adapted on a best-selling novel and directed by the Russo brothers, “The Gray Man” premieres on Netflix and in select cinemas. Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, Regé-Jean Page, and Alfre Woodard are just a few of the stars who have joined Ryan Gosling in the Marvel flicks directed by the brothers. Because it’s a collection of set pieces and snappy gags without personality, “The Gray Man” is a one-dimensional experience for the viewer. Gosling’s personality is what actually sets him apart from the rest of the pack.

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His chiseled features has repeatedly reminded me of Brad Pitt, who rose to popularity in the early ’90s thanks to his performance in Thelma and Louise. But Hollywood had a hard time finding roles for him that weren’t just typical attractive boys like A River Runs Through It, Interview With the Vampire, Legends of the Fall, and Meet Joe Black. Instead, he was a standout in 12 Monkeys and True Romance as a supporting cast member. Directors like David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh helped Brad Pitt land the leading roles he wanted. Beautiful men who seemed uncomfortable with their natural good looks starred in these films, and they possessed an unusual energy that made them stand out.

Some of Ryan Gosling’s best performances share a similar tone. Drive, Blade Runner 2049, and First Man are just some of the roles he’s played, but he’s also played Holland March in The Nice Guys, Jared Vennett in The Big Short, and Lars in Lars and the Real Girl. When I think of him as a do-gooder cop in Gangster Squad, he was at his most engaging. Six, a government-trained assassin, does have a sinister air to him. The Russos, on the other hand, make it clear right away that he’s a moral spy at heart. However, when his handlers tell him he shouldn’t be concerned about collateral damage and he finds out that the unit is tainted, Six instantly turns on them and shoots his target anyhow.

The next two hours are devoted to a series of European chases. Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a former spy turned for-hire assassination guy who lacks his quarry’s ethical values, pursues him six times from Vienna to Prague to London. He portrays Hansen as a snobbish fool who can’t stop boasting about his Harvard degree, while Evans, another square-jawed marquee idol, gets to have some fun. Six’s non-personality is all Gosling has to work with. For this reason, he spends most of the movie grinning and babbling while doing CGI-enhanced running, jumping, and shooting sequences that have been specifically designed to make him blend in with the surroundings.

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The most shocking revelation is that Gosling’s good looks almost make it work. If nothing else, Hollywood has always excelled at exhibiting attractive features to entertain the public, and even in the worst dreck he’s always interesting to look at. Gray Man could have done better if it tapped into Six’s discomfort with the dashing super-spy archetype he’s been sculpted into for his whole adult life, making him less comfortable with it. In Moneyball, Pitt portrays Billy Beane, a baseball general manager who was predicted to be a celebrity athlete because of his all-American looks, and I find that tension to be one of the most compelling aspects of Pitt’s performance.

Such introspection is out of the question for the Gray Man. Defeating Lloyd Hansen, outrunning his fellow captors, and rescuing Claire (Julia Butters), the niece of his master Fitzroy, are all that Six has to do (Thornton). The film’s only purpose is to build up sequels, spend money on extravagant location shoots, and appear glitzy and exciting. Perhaps Gosling was paid well for his performance in the movie. While he gives back the all-purpose steely charm that was expected of him, he doesn’t put any heart into it in the process.

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