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From Drive to The Gray Man: Ryan Gosling’s 5 most badass roles

In The Gray Man, Netflix’s big summer action movie event directed by Joe and Anthony Russo (Cherry, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame), Ryan Gosling plays a shadowy CIA agent who (according to Netflix), “uncovers damning agency secrets” and is “hunted across the globe by a sociopathic rogue operative who’s put a bounty on his head.” Gosling is new to such roles, so perhaps he can be forgiven if he wasn’t aware that this is the plot of basically every international spy thriller ever made, including at least four with Bourne in the title.

But while Gosling is not as known for his action roles as some of his contemporaries (including Chris Evans, with whom he stars in The Gray Man), he’s certainly been a badass in his share of movies. With the release of The Gray Man and more similar roles in the pipeline as the stunt daredevil in the remake of TV’s The Fall Guy and in Wolfman, Gosling is sure to badass up the screen for years to come. Here are five of his most badass roles thus far.

Drive (2011)

Ryan Gosling stars in Drive (2011)

In Drive, Gosling plays a Los Angeles stunt driver by day and a criminal getaway driver by night, who falls for his elfin neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and descends deeper into the mob underworld as he tries to protect her and her kid from some bad dudes. Gosling would work with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn two years later in the Bangkok-set Only God Forgives, but if both movies traffic in ultraviolence, Drive does so with much more coherence and charm.

The Driver (in true badass fashion, he’s never named) is a lover, fighter, and daredevil, and even Steve McQueen would have probably envied his scorpion-emblazoned gold jacket. In all, you can’t get more badass, at least in terms of traditional cinematic notions of masculinity. But the true badassery in this movie lies in its groovy So-Cal vibe, thrumming synth soundtrack, and ultracool cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston and the immortal Albert Brooks (yup, the voice of Nemo’s dad) as a mob boss who is so lethal with a blade his victims don’t even know they’ve been cut until they’re already bleeding out.

You can stream Drive on Tubi and stream and rent it on other digital platforms.

The Nice Guys (2016)

Ryan Gosling lights a cigarette in The Nice Guys.

Gosling plays Holland March, funny guy to Russell Crowe’s straight man, Jackson Healy, in The Nice Guys, co-writer/director Shane Black’s comic paean to L.A. detective films like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. In the tradition of those movies, the mystery plot is all but impenetrable as the two private eyes work to uncover the typical conspiracy that goes to the top — this time of the Detroit auto industry. But it doesn’t matter, because the story is secondary to the comedy and the lively 1970s production design.

Black’s obsession with sexualizing nubile young women, evident in much of his work, reaches its distasteful peak here, but if you can look past that, the movie is laid-back and confident, and features terrific buddy chemistry from Gosling and Crowe, along with a charismatic turn from Angourie Rice as March’s 13-year-old daughter. Gosling can come off as robotic in some of his performances, so it’s a revelation to see him loose-limbed and even mugging a little (I swear he channels vintage Chevy Chase during a scene in which he drunkenly discovers a dead body). He’s not as much of a traditional badass as Crowe in the film (who gets to do most of the bad guy whooping), but he still becomes a hero and and a half-decent father as well.

You can rent The Nice Guys on Apple TV and other digital platforms.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Ryan Gosling stars in Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Yes, Gosling played Young Hercules, but he did so as a skinny kid, and despite his shapely physique, he’s always had a slim build. So it’s even more impressive when, as the (android) Replicant K in Blade Runner 2049, he takes down a fellow Replicant, the hulking Dave Bautista, by throwing him through a wall. Like Robert Patrick as the bad terminator in Terminator 2, Gosling’s slight build in the movie makes his super strength feel even more dangerous. You can’t assess what he’s capable of just by looking at him.

K also survives a drone missile strike and holds his own in a fight with Harrison Ford as old-school replicant Rick Deckard — perhaps the ultimate demonstration of virility, given Ford’s historical insistence on projecting alpha status onscreen. His physical badassery thus proved, K turns to a more profound kind: rising above the sewer of humanity to sacrifice himself for the greater good. BR 2049 is one of Gosling’s most badass roles, and one of his best overall.

You can stream Blade Runner 2049 on HBO Max and other digital platforms.

First Man (2018)

Ryan Gosling stars in First Man.

Not as epic as The Right Stuff (1983) or as gripping as Apollo 13 (1995), First Man nonetheless provides a stirring account of one of humanity’s greatest space adventures. Reteaming with Damien Chazelle, who had directed him in the almost Best Picture-winning La La Land a few years earlier, Gosling doesn’t do any singing and dancing this time (surely not the most disappointing outcome). Instead, he plays Neil Armstrong, who pilots a rocket-powered space plane into the stratosphere and almost pancakes into a mountain before barely wrestling the craft onto the ground. His badass credentials thus established, he one-ups himself by merely becoming the first man to walk on the moon.

If anything gave Chazelle the confidence needed to stage one of the most awe-inspiring feats of all time, it was choreographing a dance sequence on an L.A. freeway in La La Land. Surely if you can make L.A. commuters appear happy to be stuck on the 105, then depicting a realistic moon landing is cake. And the moon sequence is the high point of a sometimes slow film, giving a palpable sense of the conditions of the landing — especially the terrifying speed of the approach — and everything that almost went wrong with it. Of course, all’s well that ends well, with Gosling stolidly dramatizing one of the most badass things anybody ever did.

You can stream First Man on FuboTV and rent it on other digital platforms.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

Ryan Gosling gazes while on a motorcycle in The Place Beyond the Pines.

Gosling and Bradley Cooper costar in this multigenerational crime epic as two men whose lives become defined by a single incident (saying any more would reveal too much). Gosling is reunited with director Derek Cianfrance who had directed him in the harrowing/sizzling Blue Valentine two years earlier, and who is also helming Wolfman. Gosling is listed as the only actor on the IMDB page for Wolfman thus far, and it’s not clear who he plays. Perhaps the beard he sports in The Gray Man — a rarity for the typically clean-shaven idol — is warm-up for a hairier transmogrification? Now that would be the ultimate in badassery.

Speaking of Gosling’s baby face, his dirtbag character leverages it to full effect in The Place Beyond the Pines as a muscle-bound, tatted-up, über-blonde bad boy who knows the effect he has on women, particularly Romina (Eva Mendez) ,who all but melts whenever the loser tries to be a good baby daddy. As in Drive, he plays a stunt driver — of dirt bikes rather than cars — and the stunt driving in this movie is pretty nifty. Also like Drive, the movie ups its badass cred significantly with a cast that includes Mahershala Ali, Ben Mendelsohn, and the dear departed Ray Liotta, one of the greatest on-screen badasses of all time.

You can stream The Place Beyond the Pines on Peacock and rent it on other digital platforms. The Gray Man is in select theaters and will begin streaming on Netflix on July 22.

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Michael Green
Michael Green is a writer and teacher who lives in Tempe, Arizona. His work has appeared in numerous publications including…
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