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14 July 2022

Netflix’s The Gray Man is a dire example of movie-making by algorithm

The service’s most expensive film yet is blatantly tailored to suit streaming viewers’ boredom, impatience and desire for familiar faces.

By David Sexton

Not the most come-hitherish title, is it? Nor even easy to remember. A pity, really, given that The Gray Man, a CIA renegade-assassins action movie – released in cinemas on 15 July, then available on Netflix from 22 July – is such a big deal for the streaming service. It is reputedly its most expensive production so far, with a $200m budget, overtaking Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which cost at least $159m (with another $50m spent on promotion and $40m on a failed Oscars push). In comparison, Roma cost just $15m to make, The Power of the Dog $35m.

Netflix has gone all out to ensure this is a blockbuster success, intending moreover to expand it into a dominant franchise like James Bond and Jason Bourne. The source material is a series of boneheaded bestsellers, a dozen or so published so far, starring the Gray Man, a deadly agent called Court Gentry, code-named Sierra Six. Their author, Mark Greaney, was Tom Clancy’s collaborator on his last novels and then kept the Jack Ryan series going for several years after his death, the ideal CV for such a project.

[See also: Where the Crawdads Sing is a lesson in how not to adapt a bestseller]

The film has been made – part-written, produced and directed – by Joe and Anthony Russo, perhaps not the fave auteurs of our most refined cineastes but currently rated the second most commercially successful directors of all time, after Steven Spielberg, having made four hit movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: twoCaptain Americas and twoAvengers sequels. The Russos have also delivered previously for Netflix: they wrote and produced (but did not direct) Extraction – following its release in 2020, it became the platform’s most-watched original film – a kidnap thriller starring Chris Hemsworth (Thor).

Enough of this already? You don’t expect a review of a play to concentrate primarily on its backers: all you want to know is if it’s any good or not. Let’s make an exception for The Gray Man, however, as the experience of watching it is to be aware at every moment that what you are facing is a carefully calculated, wholly corporate product, entirely predictable and devoid of any authorship or originality. Let us continue.

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To star as the villain – another incredibly deadly freelance assassin, called Lloyd Hansen, recruited by the CIA to take down our hero, and recover some crucial data chip or other – the Russos have relied on another of the lynchpins of their previous successes, Chris Evans (Captain America). Lloyd isn’t just a bit of a baddie, he’s a sadistic psycho expelled from the service for torturing victims too enthusiastically, given to quoting Arthur Schopenhauer (“a German philosopher”) and no less indicatively sporting an evil moustache. Evans, despite his role in Knives Out, has no gift for malice at all, being basically a bit of a brick.

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As the hero, Six – also known as the Gray Man because he has to operate under the radar – Ryan Gosling, an actor with no superhero track record, has been appointed, rather surprisingly. He is always nice to look at – rather calming, as if aiming to illustrate the concept of imperturbability, pleasantly taciturn too –but this does not help generate tension. As his sidekick, renegade CIA agent Miranda, Ana de Armas is much less exciting than she appeared to be in No Time to Die.

Billy Bob Thornton is distinguished as Six’s retired CIA mentor Fitzroy; Regé-Jean Page from Bridgerton usefully nasty as corrupt CIA boss Carmichael. The treat of the casting though is Julia Butters (now 13, she made a brilliant movie debut aged ten in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) as Claire, Fitzroy’s niece, cruelly orphaned and fitted with a pacemaker for good measure, who is kidnapped by Hansen. Six may otherwise be the world’s top killer but he is determined to save little Claire, an ancient device for suggesting action men have hearts of gold after all.

The rest of the film is merely formulaic. There’s a big fight on a plane that disintegrates mid-air, a massive gun battle on a runaway tram in Prague. Glam locations (Croatia, the Château de Chantilly) are ostentatiously signalled. The dialogue has far too many protracted speeches at gunpoint but is also heavily clichéd. Netflix has backed a lot of good films, and then pushed them hard for awards, but this one is nothing but pap, blatantly tailored to service streaming viewers’ needs: their pleasure in familiar faces and quickly graspable scenarios, their readiness to pause and switch, their boredom and impatience. Netflix, remember, now counts as an official viewer any subscriber who watches a programme for just two minutes. My mistake to have watched this one sober, perhaps.

“The Gray Man” is on Netflix from 22 July

[See also: How did Netflix’s Persuasion get the novel so wrong?]

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant