Old Marvel content farmers reap what they sow in ‘The Gray Man’

Images courtesy Netflix.

2/10 I’m now having to realize how strong my instinct is to spell gray with an “e” and looking at the history of the two acceptable spellings and thinking about what a trash language English is, and it’s all over this horrible train wreck of a TV movie.

In a distressingly COVID-less 2021, a CIA assassin codenamed Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) runs around doing things. Six has information that could be damaging to his new boss, and so they hire Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a former agent who was kicked out of the agency because he likes torture too much even by the CIA’s standards, to find him. The plot is Suicide Squad meets Bourne Identity, it’s very straightforward.

The Gray Man is a three-way head-on collision of creative forces who all agree on exactly one thing: they want a product with their names on it. How much they care about what that product actually is varies.

Careening out of control on their three remaining tires from one direction, Netflix has spent the year – well, they’ve spent the year hemorrhaging subscribers. The Gray Man dropped just the weekend after the original streaming service released an earnings report relieved they’d “only” lost 1 million subscribers in Q2 – Netflix has spent the year spitting out a new release every week, often with a major release meant to up each quarter. The Gray Man was a prominent part of their announcement of not a film you’ll enjoy watching, but the expansion of a library in which you might find a film you’ll enjoy watching.

Zooming in from another direction in an obscenely expensive rear-wheel manual they only think they know how to operate, writer/director/producer duo Joe and Anthony Russo have spent their careers defining big budget action movies, such as they are – the pair came onboard for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and continued their run with Marvel through Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, four comic book tentpoles over a six-year span that were all in the top three of the domestic box office of their respective years. Now, suddenly, they’ve directed three direct-to-streaming movies for Netflix and Apple+, with a fourth on the way and four other projects announced that are mostly already earmarked for streaming services.

It’s been noted for years that intellectual property, not actors or directors, are the real box office draws now – that viewers will flock to “the new Ghostbusters movie,” but “the new Bill Murray movie” squeaks through in limited release. Being attached to an established crossover media star is the only way a movie can get real funding, and after the COVID-19 crisis, in some cases they’re the only movies that can get a theatrical release. This is the mentality the Russos ran headlong into when they wanted $200 million to produce The Gray Man. Even for the directors fresh off the highest grossing film of all time, theatrical studios were asking them to do it for $60 or $70 million instead. Only Netflix, a studio that does not rely on the performance of films individually, would give them what they wanted.

Unlike most contemporary action movies, The Gray Man isn’t made by someone imitating the MCU, people who were told The Winter Soldier is a really popular movie and they should ape it. This was made by the guys who were doing their best, and MCU action is what they came up with.

The action in The Gray Man is often almost but never quite amazing, and all the cheats and shortcuts make regular appearances – the leaps and throws that take three or four cuts to achieve because no one’s performing them, the framing entire conflicts around not showing the actor’s face, the hectic camerawork to simulate the energy it should provide. Everything is frenetic and complex and impossible to appreciate. In what’s supposed to be an action movie, they can never simply do a fight scene, even with their $200 million budget and everything that comes with it. For almost 10 years, the Russos have set the example and learned through feedback that this charlatan imitation of action is what audiences want, what movies are supposed to offer. 

Ryan Gosling is head-and-shoulders above most actors who’ve come through the MCU, and after being offered Christian Grey and the DCEU’s Joker, it’s remarkable this is the first franchise-aspiring piece to bag him. Kind of speaks to the point that the really talented people don’t want to get mixed up in this type of business model.

I would be embarrassed if my name were on The Gray Man, unless my name were Ryan Gosling. Six has several hilarious one-liners, and Gosling’s timing and delivery are just as perfect as ever, but the movie never pauses to let him work. He’s always the only funny element in an otherwise hectic scene, and his wonderful performance serves more to highlight the disorganization around him. Evans is having a wonderful time as the villain, but too often his performance feels like a bad Ryan Reynolds impression.

To be nice for a moment, The Gray Man is packed to the gills with action. Where so many tentpoles are talkies with big set pieces at the exact beginning, middle and end, The Gray Man never stops bringing the goods from the word “go.” The film is never realistic or serious, and as inappropriate as the poor craftsmanship is, it won’t get in the way of a good time.

Screaming in from a third direction at twice the speed limit with his head buried in is phone is series author Mark Greaney, the espionage writer who has spat out 11 “Gray Man” books since 2009 while co-writing seven Jack Ryan books with Tom Clancy during that timeframe. Browsing through the covers of the 500-page tomes that apparently take less than a year to write, each with the same stilted “I love The Gray Man” endorsement on their covers, is what really makes the joke clear. 

Everyone in charge is talking about “The Gray Man universe,” for which a sequel and spinoff have already been approved, like a crypto currency project, an asset completely divorced from its function for which mere existence is the point, and its existence is the point, for people to stumble onto perusing Netflix or grab from the impulse isle of a bookstore, whatever those look like these days.

For the Russo brothers, what can you say? These guys directed the biggest movie of all time just three years ago, but it and the other blockbusters they made for Disney were meant just as much as The Gray Man to disappear into a thick mist of “content,” and they’ve been married to streaming services ever since. They held out for $200 million to make this, this is the movie they were free to make and wanted to make, and it’s a real pile of crap.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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