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‘The Gray Man’ and Netflix’s Murky Blockbuster Output

Reported to be the most expensive movie Netflix has ever made, ‘The Gray Man’ is tasked with improving upon the streamer’s ignominious track record when it comes to tentpoles

Netflix/Ringer

Despite the long-awaited and largely acclaimed return of Stranger Things, it hasn’t been Netflix’s year. A dip in subscribers for the first time in a decade led to the company’s stock price plummeting, which was followed by multiple rounds of layoffs. Throw in rivals like HBO Max, Disney+, and even Apple TV+ being on the upswing, and Netflix has never seemed so vulnerable. There isn’t exactly a cure-all to the streamer’s woes, but as far as reminding users it’s got more to offer outside of the Upside Down, a blockbuster from the filmmaking tandem behind some of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s biggest hits doesn’t sound bad on paper.

After a successful four-movie run in the MCU with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame, the Russo brothers have earned carte blanche (or as close to it as it gets these days) in Hollywood as they move away from the superhero industrial complex. Joe and Anthony Russo’s first post-Marvel directorial effort, Cherry, was a bold swing in which Tom Holland starred as a PTSD-afflicted army veteran who turned to robbing banks to fuel his heroin addiction. The Russos deserve some credit for going outside of their wheelhouse to make an R-rated biographical drama, but Cherry was too unwieldy and tonally jarring to go down as anything but a wasted opportunity. One misstep won’t erase years of commercial viability within the MCU, however, and Netflix is banking big on the Russos recreating that crowd-pleasing formula with The Gray Man.

Reported to be the most expensive movie Netflix has ever made, with a production budget of $200 million, The Gray Man’s hefty price tag is reflected in its collection of A-listers (Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Bollywood megastar Dhanush) and glitzy filming locations across Europe, including a historic French château. Adapted from Mark Greaney’s spy novel of the same name, The Gray Man follows Sierra Six (Gosling), a mercenary former prisoner the CIA recruited for off-the-book assignments. As a result, it’s as if Six doesn’t exist, working exclusively in a gray area. (Hence the film’s title.) But when Six suspects the CIA is withholding vital information from him during a hit in Bangkok that turns out to be against a fellow Sierra agent, he goes on the run. In response, Agency bigwig Denny Carmichael (Bridgerton breakout star Regé-Jean Page) turns to sociopathic gun-for-hire Lloyd Hansen (Evans) and his vast network of killers to hunt Six down.

If Netflix’s approach to original programming is at least partially dictated by algorithms, then The Gray Man is the streamer’s in-house equivalent to globe-trotting spy franchises starring James Bond and Jason Bourne. Aiming for these kinds of tentpoles appears to be a priority, with the company pivoting to a new moviemaking edict of “bigger, fewer, and better” according to The Hollywood Reporter. But the persistent problem for Netflix is that its efforts to emulate popular IP can often feel as robotic as the algorithmic decision-making influencing the company. (Red Notice, for instance, was a shockingly soulless attempt at recreating the magic of the Indiana Jones franchise.)

Considering the exhausting number of films that Netflix releases in a given year, it’s impossible to form a unifying theory around these projects: For every masterpiece like The Irishman or The Power of the Dog, there are many more duds like The Do-Over and Hillbilly Elegy. The streamer’s attempts at making bona fide blockbusters have been especially appalling over the years: Red Notice notwithstanding, subscribers have been subjected to Bright, 6 Underground, Spenser Confidential, The Ridiculous 6, and Bird Box. (In the event you’ve spared yourself from watching these films—first off, I’m jealous, and second, they all stink.) The list of watchable original blockbusters basically begins and ends with The Old Guard, Army of the Dead, and Triple Frontier, which puts The Gray Man in the unenviable position of going against the streamer’s ignominious track record.

The best thing that can be said about The Gray Man is that it’s not an abject failure on the level of most of its big-budget Netflix contemporaries. (Perhaps all those years working in the MCU has ensured the Russos can at least earn a passing grade.) But at the same time, a baseline level of adequacy probably isn’t the bar you’d expect the Russos to clear when they’ve been given the biggest budget in the company’s history to date.

Ironically, one of the biggest issues with The Gray Man is something the Russos brought with them from the MCU—namely, an insistence on deflating the tension of action sequences with snappy one-liners. It would be one thing if The Gray Man strived to be an action-comedy hybrid like Spy or Get Smart, but the movie clearly wants its spycraft to be taken seriously. This bizarre dissonance is particularly infuriating because some of the fight scenes are actually quite engaging: a sequence when Gosling’s Six avoids gunfire while handcuffed to a park bench is a clever bit of staging that leads into an entertaining skirmish on a runaway tram. But the fact that the Russos can’t stick to their proverbial guns and make it a straightforward spy thriller without throwing in a bunch of unnecessary quips gives the impression of filmmakers lacking the confidence to let the action speak for itself.

This inconsistency extends to the movie’s leads, who seem like they’ve been shoved together from two entirely different projects. In Gosling’s first role since 2018’s First Man, he excels in the little moments when his character feels the toll of his deadly line of work and shows hints of vulnerability. Conversely, Evans is completely hamming it up as Lloyd, who wears tight-fitting polos, constantly yells at his lackeys, and generally has the vibe of someone who’d be the absolute worst hang at his local country club. The lack of cohesion between the characters makes it more palatable that Six and Lloyd rarely share the screen and spend more time shit-talking one another over the phone. In fact, for a film billed as an epic showdown between Gosling and Evans, The Gray Man mostly boils down to hordes of Lloyd’s henchmen going up against Six and getting cut down.

Even with these shortcomings, The Gray Man remains a serviceable action flick—the kind of movie you’d be content to put on as background noise while you do household chores. (Note: Do not miss the tram scene.) Perhaps this outcome won’t bother Netflix, which only seems to care about the number of viewing hours a project produces. But as the company’s answer to the summer blockbuster, The Gray Man is indicative of the mediocrity that’s continued to seep into the streamer’s programming.

To that end, The Gray Man still being an improvement over many of Netflix’s previous high-profile tentpoles is a damning sign of the company’s inability to challenge the theatrical blockbuster experience. (Maybe Steven Spielberg doesn’t have to worry about Netflix taking over Hollywood after all.) There remain areas of Netflix’s moviemaking empire that are commendable, particularly the company’s willingness to back the passion projects of generation-defining filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón, and David Fincher. But if the streamer is looking for an answer as to why it’s begun bleeding subscribers, the call is coming from inside the house.

In spite of The Gray Man’s lukewarm reception, Netflix’s faith in the Russos is apparently unwavering—with a prequel and a sequel reportedly in the works. Given that Netflix has already committed to making two Red Notice sequels, turning The Gray Man into a potential franchise isn’t exactly the worst (or costliest) decision the company’s made in the past year. But if this is ultimately the quality subscribers can expect from Netflix’s big-budget offerings, it would be hard not to feel like the streamer’s once-lofty ambitions to shake up the entertainment industry have been replaced with complacency. Instead of clear skies, the future of Netflix is starting to look quite gray.