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Review: Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans play empty spy games in Netflix’s ‘The Gray Man’

A bearded man with a cut on his forehead stands in a street.
Ryan Gosling in the movie “The Gray Man.”
(Stanislav Honzik/Netflix)
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The last time Ryan Gosling was sent to murder a guy in Bangkok was about nine years ago, when he starred in Nicolas Winding Refn’s sick-puppy art-thriller “Only God Forgives.” I kind of loathed that movie, though it did have awesome red wallpaper and a hilariously foul-mouthed Kristin Scott Thomas, which helped the portentous vibes and extreme carnage go down. And of course it had Gosling, cast not for the first or last time as a handsome cipher with a knack for killing people. He gives us another one of those ciphers in the new Netflix espionage thriller “The Gray Man,” which is the first movie to make me consider watching “Only God Forgives” again, perhaps to offer or even seek my own forgiveness.

“The Gray Man” was directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, though it’s such a synthetic, soulless bundle of goods that it barely feels touched by human hands. Full of smirking one-liners, blink-and-you-miss-’em international locations and acts of gratuitously unpleasant (if more implied than seen) violence, it’s basically Netflix Winding Refn; it’s globe-trotting comic nihilism for the whole streaming-loving family. It has a bunch of supporting players pulled from the Netflix rotation: Wagner Moura from “Narcos,” Regé-Jean Page of “Bridgerton,” Jessica Henwick from “Iron Fist” and the upcoming “Glass Onion.” It also has the murky, heavily processed digital look of more than a few so-called Netflix originals, the ones that come flaunting a blockbuster price tag yet somehow still look indefensibly cut-rate on a proper movie screen.

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For all that, “The Gray Man” will actually be playing in theaters before it begins streaming on Netflix on July 22. Because the violence is generally bloodless and murkily shot, the movie has even been granted a PG-13 rating, which seems a bit lax for a movie in which Billy Bob Thornton gets his fingernails ripped out. I have no idea whether that particular torture scene comes from the source material, not having read “The Gray Man” or any other novels in the series by Mark Greaney, a protégé of the late Tom Clancy. I also don’t know whose idea it was to throw a screaming teenager with a heart condition repeatedly into harm’s way — a choice that might have felt more defensible in a movie that didn’t expect us to chortle merrily at every fresh burst of mayhem.

It all begins with an unnamed man (Gosling) sitting quietly in a Florida prison in 2003, where he’s serving a long sentence for murder. We’re informed that his crime was entirely justified, which seems a bit of a dodge, an assurance that we won’t be expected to sympathize with a monster. No, this guy is a trained killer with a conscience (and a weakness for bubble gum — cute), which is what brings him to the attention of grizzled CIA veteran Donald Fitzroy (Thornton), who offers him an early out if he agrees to turn freelance assassin. Cut to the present day, and Gosling is now Sierra Six, the top member of a top-secret squad to whom the Agency quietly outsources its really, really dirty jobs.

Chris Evans in the movie "The Gray Man."
(Paul Abell/Netflix)
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The latest of those jobs finds Six in Bangkok, where he teams up with another operative, Dani (Ana de Armas, basically extending her “No Time to Die” cameo), to take out a high-priority target. As with every mission, Six has no idea who he’s killing or why, but this time he learns far too much. Amid bright neon lights, exploding CGI fireworks and lots of screaming, fleeing party guests, the assignment is bungled and Six, realizing he’s next on the CIA hit list, goes on the run. The action shifts to Baku, Berlin and a soon-to-be-half-destroyed Prague, with a brief flashback to Hong Kong, where we see Six bonding with his old mentor Fitzroy’s niece, Claire (Julia Butters), the aforementioned teenager. When she’s kidnapped back in the present day, you know it’s only a matter of time before Six comes to her rescue, even if he has to jump out of an extremely fake-looking burning plane to do it.

The script, written by Joe Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, throws a lot of spy-thriller filler at the screen. A computer drive full of highly incriminating data goes missing, historic European landmarks are treated like cannon fodder, and people snarl things like “If you like breathing, you might want to fix this.” Page and Henwick are particularly wasted in some of the most tedious Langley office drama in recent memory. Thornton and a perfectly deployed Alfre Woodard fare markedly better as Six’s guardian angels. Elsewhere, the popular Indian actor and musician Dhanush gets to flaunt some deadly Gosling-impaling moves in one of the movie’s better action showcases.

A woman stands by a table where a man is sitting in a nightclub
Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling in “The Gray Man.”
(Paul Abell/Netflix)

For better or worse, the liveliest presence is Chris Evans as Lloyd Hansen, a sociopathic CIA reject — he’s the fingernail puller and the teenager endangerer — who’s called in to run point. Sporting a muscle polo and a malevolent grin, Evans is clearly enjoying his liberation from Captain America heroics. So, presumably, are the Russo brothers, who previously directed Evans in the likes of “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Avengers: Endgame.” As they demonstrated in those Marvel movies’ lighter moments — and also in films like “Welcome to Collinwood” and shows like “Arrested Development” and “Community” — the Russos are funnymen by temperament, and in “The Gray Man” they try unsuccessfully to affect a breezy comic tone with one hand while maiming half their ensemble with the other.

Gosling has a few funny moments himself — his affectlessness has always been an easy source of amusement — but for the most part he plays it cool, which is safe territory for him but also watchable enough for us. He’s always been good at inhabiting emotional and psychological nonentities, whether as a replicant in “Blade Runner 2049” or as a man scarcely more lifelike than his blow-up doll in “Lars and the Real Girl.” (At one point in “The Gray Man” he’s referred to as a “Ken doll,” an undisguised reference to his role in the upcoming “Barbie” movie.) Sometimes Gosling can make that restraint work for a character, like his emotionally tamped-down Neil Armstrong in “First Man” (2018), which happens to be the last movie he appeared in before this one. It’s good to have him back, even if good, in this case, is far from the operative word.

‘The Gray Man’

Rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of strong violence, and strong language

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday in general release; available July 22 on Netflix


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