The Gray Man Exaggerates the Stoic-Spy Cliché The Stoic-Spy Cliché is Overused in The Gray Man.

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The Gray Man Exaggerates the Stoic-Spy Cliché The Stoic-Spy Cliché is Overused in The Gray Man.

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Ryan Gosling has long used stoicism as a potent tool in his films. Drive, a tense 2011 thriller in which he played an anonymous stunt driver who is cool behind the wheel but monosyllabic in conversation, is still one of his best-remembered movies. He acted as Officer K in Blade Runner 2049 and was a figuratively emotionless android "replicant." He portrays astronaut Neil Armstrong as aloof and prickly in the film First Man, much more prepared to tackle his work than any human interaction. But despite how distant he appeared in each of those films, he was constantly juggling a complex character, realistic story stakes, and a hint of inner oddity. None of that is present in his most recent leading part in the action megahit The Gray Man on Netflix.

Gosling is portraying a man without a name once more, this time an assassin known only as "Sierra Six" who executes CIA covert ops with merciless effectiveness. The Russo brothers' The Gray Man, which is based on a best-selling 2009 novel and is currently playing in select theaters and on Netflix, has a stellar resume: The Gosling-centered cast also features Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, Regé-Jean Page, and Alfre Woodard. The Gosling-centered cast was created by the brothers, who also directed four of the most commercially successful Marvel movies ever made. But The Gray Man is a wholly faceless film, a collection of set pieces and one-liners that lacks character. And Gosling's charisma is what really makes him stand out on screen.

Ryan Gosling is not a movie star, as you can see.

He frequently makes me think of Brad Pitt, who shot to stardom in the early 1990s with his powerful performance in Thelma and Louise, supported by his chiseled visage. However, Hollywood had trouble coming up with excellent leading-man roles for him; in epics like A River Runs Through It, Interview With the Vampire, Legends of the Fall, and Meet Joe Black, Pitt came across as a generic handsome boy. In 12 Monkeys and True Romance, he instead thrived in much stranger supporting roles. Pitt teamed up with filmmakers like David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh to find the leading roles that fit him. Their heroes had a more eccentric vitality; they were handsome men who appeared uncomfortable with their naturally attractive appearances.


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The feel of my fave Ryan Gosling performances is similar. He has portrayed the reserved protagonists of Drive, Blade Runner 2049, and First Man, as well as the stumbling, cocky private eye Holland March in The Nice Guys, the crooked trader Jared Vennett in The Big Short, and the sweet but awkward Lars in Lars and the Real Girl. The Gray Man reminded me most of him as a do-gooder cop in Gangster Squad, which is when he was at his least intriguing. Yes, Six is a trained murderer with a nasty undertone. But the Russos quickly make it clear to the spectator that he is a spy who is essentially moral. In the first mission seen, Six hesitates to fire because a child is close by; however, as his handlers pressure him to disregard collateral damage and he learns that there is corruption inside the unit, he immediately turns against them and leaves the mission.

Two hours of pursuit scenes take place around Europe after that. He makes six jumps from Vienna to Prague to London while being chased by the evil Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a former spy turned hired assassin who lacks the morals of his prey. Evans, another square-jawed marquee idol, at least gets to enjoy playing the bad guy; he portrays Hansen as a brash nit who is constantly gloating about his Harvard education. Six's non-personality is the only thing Gosling has to work with. He spends most of the movie scowling and grumbling when he isn't being thrown into another CGI-powered sequence of running, jumping, and shooting since the government trained him to be a "gray man" who could blend into the backdrop of any assignment.

The cruelest irony is that it almost works because Gosling is so attractive. He's always interesting to look at, even in the greatest dreck, and if nothing else, Hollywood has always excelled at showing off attractive faces to amuse the general public. If The Gray Man had made Six more uncomfortable with the dashing super-spy stereotype that he has been sculpted into for his whole adult life, it might have succeeded in breaking the curse of the movie star. The tension in my favorite Brad Pitt role, Billy Beane, the baseball general manager in Moneyball, is what I find so compelling. Beane was expected to be a celebrity athlete due to his all-American looks, but he found true happiness only after being released from that pressure.

Read: Feeling sorry for the actor.

Such inward reaches are not accessible to the Gray Man. The only tasks left for Six are to vanquish Lloyd Hansen, escape from his other hostages, and save Claire (Julia Butters), the niece of his master Fitzroy (Thornton). Every tougher edge has been sanded down to nothing in the interest of setting up sequels, spending money on expensive location shooting, and making the movie appear glamorous and exciting. For the movie, Gosling undoubtedly received a handsome salary. He reciprocates by giving the all-purpose steely charm that is expected of him, but there is no passion there.

David Sims writes on culture as a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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