Ryan Gosling is our greatest action movie star

I was ready to despise “The Gray Man,” because who wouldn’t be? It was directed by the Russo Brothers, two men who appear hell-bent on transforming the job of film director from that of a skilled craftsman to that of a boilerplate tech company executive. It’s available on Netflix, a fading company whose last foray into big action movies was “Red Notice,” a limp Dwayne Johnson/Ryan Reynolds/Gal Gadot vehicle, which everyone hated if they haven’t already forgotten about it entirely. And friends whom I trust saw “The Gray Man” and were equal parts bored and irritated. So I, being of sound mind, was all set to watch this movie, hate it, and then reap a page view bonanza with a supremely bitchy hit job on it.

But then Ryan Gosling had to go and f—k it all up.

It’s not exactly a new development when our best actors are tasked with elevating parts that, strictly in artistic terms, they’re overqualified to play. Every great British actor did so for the Harry Potter franchise. Robert Downey did it for “Iron Man” and made unimaginable amounts of money for his efforts. And Al Pacino has done it in virtually every movie he’s appeared in for the past 40 years. There are fewer and fewer movies greenlit every year, and summer houses don’t pay for themselves. So it’s only natural that an actor as supremely talented as Ryan Gosling would throw Netflix a bone, take a hefty paycheck of $20 million, and lend his name to what appeared to be a glorified airplane movie.

At the outset of “The Gray Man,” it feels like a regrettable decision in every way except financially. The first half hour or so lives down to expectations. The plot is every plot of every action movie you’ve ever seen. There are a million gratuitous aerial shots of faraway places that tell you nothing about those places. There’s a paucity of attention to detail that would make Michael Mann groan. There are drone shots that may as well have “SHOT USING A DRONE” superimposed on the bottom of the screen. There’s a Sassy Kid With A Heart Condition. And the production values, despite “Gray Man’s” $200 million price tag, are abominable. There are blatantly CGI-ed fireworks, plus extended sequences where Gosling is digitally superimposed onto backgrounds of nothing but pink flare gun smoke. I’ve seen Garfield cartoons that are more lifelike. This movie was sucking, and sucking good. I could NOT have been more excited to complain about it.

And yet, midway through “The Gray Man,” I didn’t want to stop watching, because I could sense it rising to match the standard set by its headliner. The Russos finally settle in one location for the back half of the movie (Croatia), where the stunts have more texture, the effects are more grounded, the drone shots are used appropriately, Billy Bob Thornton gets kick-ass facial hair, Ana de Armas is given an endless supply of RPGs to fire at the bad guys, and the action settles into a rhythm worthy of Gosling’s myriad talents.

I have long been a connoisseur of middlebrow action fare. I grew up with the Schwarzenegger canon, which included a “Red Heat” for every “Total Recall.” And, just before taking in “The Gray Man,” I had sampled and enjoyed three modern exemplars of the genre in “Den of Thieves,” “Blackhat” and “Ambulance.” That last one is probably the closest corollary to “The Gray Man” in that it’s directed by another commerce addict in Michael Bay, its first half hour blows, and it features a star, Jake Gyllenhaal, who would appear to be above the material at hand but actually fits perfectly into it. You’ve seen this trick performed many times in older action movies like “Taken” and “Die Hard,” often with great success. Turns out that “award-winning actor f—ks everyone up” is not only a durable movie formula, but perhaps one of the best.

Ryan Gosling may be the ideal vessel for this formula. After all, this is not the first time I’ve watched him do an action film. I’ve seen Gosling in “The Nice Guys.” I’ve seen him in “Blade Runner 2049.” And if you wanna count “First Man” as an action film, well there was that, too. (I haven’t seen “Drive,” but that’s on me and will soon be corrected.) In the Gosling action movies I have seen, he’s been perfect. He’s perfect again in “The Gray Man,” so much so that I realized toward the end of the movie that this material was NOT beneath him. These are actually the roles that he was born to play. I don’t wanna watch Gosling in “Half Nelson.” I hated that movie. I don’t even wanna see him in higher quality arthouse fare like “La La Land” because he was, surprisingly, the weak link in it. I definitely don’t wanna see him play af—king Ken doll in a Greta Gerwig Barbie movie that promises to be 2% more subversive than it looks on paper. I just wanna see him kick ass and then look like he needs a nap.

For this movie, Gosling more than obliges. His character of Six is ​​badly underwritten. We don’t even get the courtesy of a dramatic scene at the end where he reveals that his real name is actually Jim or something. Gosling’s co-star, Chris Evans, is given way more scenery to chew on (plus a Barbie dig), and Evans does an excellent job swallowing down every last bit of it. But it’s even more fun to watch a guy like Gosling act his way out of a creative straitjacket. Gosling’s Six Barely Talks at All. Instead, he fights everyone. Wearily. He kills all of the bad guys while taking a knife to the ribs, and then he sits down, strikes out a decent one-liner (“I’m gonna bleed out while we have this conversation”), and looks very tired. No actor right now is better at looking tired than this man.

And you need that fatigue. That’s what makes a great action movie lead. You have to get the sense that even though our hero has to be out there blowing s—t up real good, they don’t really want to. Bruce Willis had this gift, and Gosling possesses it in even greater abundance. He’s one of those actors who can convey a character’s most complex emotions without moving his face at all, and he summons that little superpower time and time again to make “The Gray Man” more than it deserves to be. I want to see Gosling do movies like this more often. I’m not certain I wanna see him do any other kind of movie, frankly. Because Ryan Gosling is, as it stands now, the premier action hero working in movies today. He’s better at Tom Cruise’s job than Tom Cruise is, and that’s no small feat.

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