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Ryan Gosling deserves better than the snarky action thriller 'The Gray Man'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new action thriller "The Gray Man," Ryan Gosling plays a freelance assassin who finds himself targeted by the CIA. The movie, which also stars Chris Evans and Ana de Armas, opens in theaters this week and begins streaming July 22 on Netflix. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: If you've missed seeing Ryan Gosling in movies - and I certainly have - you'll be pleased to know that his recent hiatus from acting is now over. He has several new projects on the horizon, the most attention-grabbing of which will surely be the live-action "Barbie" movie, in which he plays a real-life Ken doll. That doesn't come out until next summer. I hope it turns out better than his latest movie, "The Gray Man," in which Gosling plays an assassin being chased all over the globe by other assassins. That sounds exciting, but it isn't. It's a pile-up of snarky, self-admiring one-liners and insanely violent but weirdly inconsequential action scenes. Nice as it is to have Gosling back, he deserves a better star vehicle than this.

The movie was adapted from the first in a series of novels by Mark Graney, a protege of the late Tom Clancy. And it wades in the same murky, conspiracy-minded waters as Clancy's fiction. It begins with Gosling's character in prison for murder, though we're assured that the crime was well-deserved. He's visited by Donald Fitzroy, a grizzled CIA veteran played by a fine Billy Bob Thornton, speaking of actors we don't see enough in movies anymore. Fitzroy offers to get him out of jail if he becomes a contract killer for the agency's top-secret Sierra program, someone to whom they can outsource the really dirty work. Cut to several years later, and Gosling's character, now known as Sierra Six, is very, very good at that work.

One day, Six is given a seemingly routine assignment in Bangkok. But the mission goes horribly wrong, and he himself becomes the CIA's next target. And so he flees, making his way from Thailand to Turkey to the Czech Republic and beyond, with a much-coveted computer drive in his possession. He has allies, including the now-retired Fitzroy and another CIA alum, played by the great Alfre Woodard. Ana de Armas, so memorable in the recent James Bond caper "No Time To Die," also swoops in as an up-and-coming agent who decides to join Six and expose corruption in the agency ranks.

But that isn't easy, especially when the CIA brings in Lloyd Hansen, an expert killer and torturer who knows no boundaries when it comes to the fine art of asset retrieval. Lloyd is played by a gleefully unhinged Chris Evans, who seems to be enjoying his liberation from the heroics of Captain America. Some of Lloyd's tactics include kidnapping a chronically ill teenager for blackmail purposes and ripping out someone's fingernails with pliers. In this action scene, Six and Lloyd finally meet face to face.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GRAY MAN")

RYAN GOSLING: (As Sierra Six) Oh, man.

CHRIS EVANS: (As Lloyd Hansen) Hey, sunshine.

GOSLING: (As Sierra Six) You must be Lloyd.

EVANS: (As Lloyd Hansen) What gave it away?

GOSLING: (As Sierra Six) The white pants, the trash stache (ph). It just - it leans Lloyd.

EVANS: (As Lloyd Hansen) Where's the drive?

GOSLING: (As Sierra Six) Got to be here somewhere - it's just hard to see. Is that it?

(SOUNDBITE OF GRENADE CLINKING)

EVANS: (As Lloyd Hansen) Holy...

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS SHATTERING)

CHANG: Just to make clear what happens at the end of that scene, instead of giving up the drive, Six drops a live grenade, forcing him and Lloyd to run and send themselves crashing through windows completely unharmed before it explodes. The movie has a lot of big, noisy set pieces like that, the most destructive of which finds a runaway train demolishing what must be half the city of Prague. But for the most part, the action is so murkily shot and frenetically edited that it all feels weightless, with none of the genuine thrills you get from, say, the last few "Mission: Impossible" pictures.

"The Gray Man" was directed by the brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, known for their work on Marvel blockbusters like "Avengers: Endgame." They're comedy directors by temperament. Their past TV credits include "Arrested Development" and "Community," and they try to give the proceedings here some bounce, mainly by having the characters swap cheeky quips, even when they're getting stabbed multiple times amid combat. But the mix of comic breeziness and over-the-top violence never jells. In spite of all this, Gosling remains good company, whether he's jumping out of burning planes or rigging underwater explosives.

This isn't the first time he's played a handsome cipher who happens to be very skilled at killing people, as he did in arty thrillers like "Drive" and "Only God Forgives," and he makes Six enough of an intriguingly unknown quantity to keep you watching. But a lot of the other actors don't fare as well. Rege-Jean Page of "Bridgerton" fame and Jessica Henwick from "The Matrix: Resurrections" are wasted in some tedious corporate CIA drama. Probably the most exciting supporting player here is the popular Indian actor and musician Dhanush, who gets to unleash some deadly moves as one of Lloyd's henchmen. No less than Gosling, he, too, deserves better than this.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for The LA Times. He reviewed "The Gray Man," starring Ryan Gosling. On Monday's show, the writer and composer of the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "The Strange Loop," Michael R. Jackson. He describes his show as a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher who works as an usher at a Broadway show. Jackson started writing it when he was working as an usher at the Broadway show "The Lion King" - hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.