Not every film actor is a chameleon. Sure, the Meryl Streeps and Daniel Day-Lewises of the world can vanish into roles and become a hundred different people with protean speed. They tend to be the exception to the rule. When we go to the movies, most of the names up on the screen tend to play the same kinds of roles over and over. Is it fair? Are myopic filmmakers, rapacious executives, and cowardly producers robbing actors of the chance to flex their creative muscles? Maybe, but them’s the breaks.

If I’m being fair, there are more reasons than that. Sometimes an actor is less interested in being a performer and more interested in a lucrative career path.* That’s fine! There’s nothing wrong with making a comfortable living as long as you’re not a dick about it. Sometimes an actor is simply more comfortable making certain kinds of films. That’s fine! Dwayne Johnson likes starring in blockbuster action/adventure movies, and I don’t expect him to appear in an independent film as a tormented shoe salesman with a drug habit. And sometimes…actors are simply limited in what they can do. Not everyone is going to have range, and I imagine more than a few actors are simply happy to be there.

That’s why I’m into it when an actor who’s known for a certain kind of role zig-zags. Robin Williams playing a fledgling serial killer in Insomnia? Yep! Denzel Washington as an enthusiastically corrupt cop in Training Day? I’m down! Meg Ryan portrays an alcoholic school counselor grappling with her crumbling marriage in When a Man Loves a Woman? More, please!

That’s why I perked up upon hearing about the leads of The Gray Man, the new blockbuster streaming on Netflix. It has Very Serious Actor Ryan Gosling as a hypercompetent assassin and former Captain America Chris Evans as a sneering maniac. It’s made by the very talented people behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Endgame. It’s not bad, but it should be a whole lot better.

My understanding is that field operative types working for the CIA are generally recruited from law enforcement or the military. Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) has an alternative idea. He visits the improbably named Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling) in prison. Gentry is doing time for murder, and Fitzroy makes him an offer to become a hired gun in the CIA’s Sierra program. While I’m sure Gentry had other ideas for his future, he figures shooting bad guys is a lot better than rotting away in a cell.

Years pass and now Court is known as Sierra Six. He’s developed a reputation for being very good at his job, and now he’s on a mission to knock off someone at a glitzy shindig in Bangkok. While he’s a professional, Six isn’t down to needlessly kill civilians, and his shot is compromised by folks getting in the way. Six is nothing if not persistent, and he manages to mortally wound his target directly, while also killing a bunch of other henchpeople.**

Things get complicated, however, when Six learns that his target is another member of the Sierra program. Things get even more complicated when his target gives him an encrypted drive containing evidence of nefarious deeds. Operations head Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) asks Six to come back in and hints that he knows about the drive. Six, not being a total dope, sends the drive to an allegedly safe location and goes on the run. Like you do.

Carmichael is not amused by this and ups the ante. How does he do that? He hires mercenary Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to track down and eliminate Six. This is an absolutely terrible idea, as Lloyd was kicked out of the CIA for sociopathic tendencies, and has a nasty habit of being…well, a rampaging maniac. While Lloyd tries to kill Six in the most over-the-top ways possible, Six is assisted by fellow operative Miranda (Ana de Armas) in learning the truth about the drive. Along the way, you will be stunned to discover that nearly everything possible explodes or is shot.

Look, I have no problem with a summer movie. I’m not one of those people who view them as empty spectacle, a kind of mindless entertainment you let wash over you as you escape the oppressive heat. What I do expect is a level of professionalism and creativity. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo provide one of those things with The Gray Man. As the duo behind some of the best offerings in the MCU, the Russos offer breakneck pacing and wildly entertaining action sequences. I feel comfortable assuring you that whenever there’s shooting, running, detonating, or general mayhem onscreen, you’ll like what you’re seeing.

The main problem is the screenplay by Joe Russo, Stephen McFeely, and Christopher Markus. It brings me no pleasure to write that as these three usually understand character, story, and structure. Here, unfortunately, it feels like a number of different elements from better works have been thrown into the mix.*** Do you like snappy, quippy dialogue? Virtually every character in The Gray Man speaks with the Wise-Ass-O-Meter cranked up to ten. Do you feel like a character can only be interesting if they are shrouded in trauma? Our protagonist Six isn’t just a tough guy operative; he’s Hiding A Hidden Pain. Six is also nearly the only character that has a character angle beyond his job. Lloyd Hansen is simply a sociopath. Miranda is merely a competent spy. We rarely learn anything about these people, and as a result, they usually feel like action figures being smashed together.

The flimsy script means that the cast has to work that much harder to bring their characters to life. It was nice seeing Billy Bob Thornton come back as a crusty veteran of the intelligence services, and it’s equally nice to see Alfre Woodard as an equally crusty veteran. Despite being nowhere near as entertaining as she was in No Time To Die, Ana de Armas acquits herself nicely with the action stuff. Luckily, we have a couple of leads that carry the film over the finish line. Ryan Gosling doesn’t seem to be slumming and it doesn’t feel like he’s just doing this for a paycheck. As Six, he’s got the physicality to be a credible action lead, the gravitas to bring the thinner emotional moments to life, and the humor to keep the character from being just a gun-toting grump. He’s a good foil for Chris Evans’ Lloyd, who seems to be getting his daily fiber intake from all the scenery he’s chewing. Lest you think I’m complaining, this is the kind of movie that needs a broad, fun villain. Evans has spent enough time as the quiet and moral center of the MCU playing Captain America. Lloyd isn’t just a human wrecking ball; he’s a guy who thinks he’s great at his job and is actually so, so bad at his job that another character comments on what a bad job he’s doing. Anytime Evans appeared with his ridiculous ‘stache and sneering quips, I enjoyed myself.

In the past, I’ve talked about laundry movies, the kinds of films that just need to be good enough to watch while you’re folding socks. If you step away from The Gray Man for a few minutes, you’ll be able to pick the thread of the story back up easily. It’s fine to have a move that exists as pure entertainment, and I liked seeing both Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans make big, unexpected choices in their acting. I just wished that they had a story that pushed boundaries as much as they did.


*See “Pratt, Chris.”

**I know, an assassin who murders a bunch of people publicly and draws attention to himself is not exactly good at his job. 

***Though there’s a particular character who, in other movies, would receive a degree of comeuppance in the end due to their behavior. Here, that character just kind of…goes about their day. It’s a choice!

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.