Wednesday 27 July 2022

Scavengers assemble: "The Gray Man"

Although Netflix's production arm has lavished the bulk of its attention on the end-of-year awards corridor, its elite projects (Roma, The Irishman, Mank) have thus far failed to grasp the perceived brass ring of the Best Picture Oscar - the kind of gewgaw that lends sheen and prestige to otherwise sterile corporate lobbies. The Gray Man, which won't be winning any Oscars, has the distinct look of a fallback plan, an attempt to muscle in on a newly animated summer market. It has the budget of a blockbuster ($200m, reportedly the highest for any Netflix release to date), directors with a track record in crowdpleasing action (Anthony and Joe Russo, hot from their Avengers endeavours), and a light smattering of bankable, desirable stars (Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas). Its fatal flaw has been to hitch all these elements to a script (by MCU workhorses Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) which feels like the first action movie screenplay ever written, and allows no acknowledgement that Netflix is turning up late in the game. Consider the first act of this big nothing about a CIA assassin (Gosling) obliged to duel with a murderous private-sector rival (Evans) while trying to expose Agency corruption: sub-Tarantino badinage between Gosling and weary mentor Billy Bob Thornton; lightweight jetsetting, stretching a teeny story thinner still; a nightclub shootout that indicates that the small part of the budget that didn't go towards stars, airfares, CGI and ironic soundtrack cuts has instead been blown on extras, filters, glitter and balloons. A stall is hereby set out: in 2022, Netflix wants us to be wowed by the 14th highest-grossing release of 1997.

Even the Russos' most consistently achieved film, the 70s-inflected Captain America: The Winter Soldier, wasn't much more than a patchwork of old ideas; it's just that no-one had thought to recycle those ideas for a while, meaning they felt fresher than they were. The brothers' newfound prominence within the theatrical/streaming sector suggests it's now possible for A-list directors to build a career like scrap merchants, scavenging the studio system for long-discarded material, or like welders, assembling basic nuts, bolts and tropes until they have something saleable as a feature-length entertainment. (No surprise the pair should have made their reputations within the MCU, with its piecemeal approach to story.) They would doubtless love for The Gray Man to be filed alongside the John Wick series' action revivalism, but the latter was informed by recent developments in Asian genre cinema (Gareth Evans's Raid movies, in particular), and thus had newish-seeming ideas to scatter across the screen of the Odeon. With its fingernail-focused torture, MacGuffiny memory sticks, Black M figure (Alfre Woodard, in what was previously the Viola Davis and Angela Bassett role), fistfights on public transport, and endless shots of characters leaping full-bodied through plate-glass windows, The Gray Man merely feels like the most illustrious of those derivations that have shambled along in John Wick's wake: movies like Atomic Blonde, Red Notice and something I'm told was called The Old Guard, which I may have seen and is apparently set for a sequel, but about which I cannot remember a single thing. Like those titles, several of which Netflix itself financed, The Gray Man is the kind of aggressively mediocre content that has to be heavily colour-corrected and edited into 10,000 tiny pieces - given a surface illusion of life/style - so as to throw us off how little of substance and meaning is actually being conveyed by its frames.

Well, maybe it's Friday night and you've been led this way by the stars - or whatever sorry excuse for stars Hollywood has left to tout this far into the 21st century, individuals who aren't as compelling in their own right as scripts this weak require them to be. Evans at least seems to be having almost as much fun beneath his stick-on moustache as he did in the white sweater of Knives Out, but he still seems more accessory-horse than actor, a 25% improvement on, say, millennial pin-up Freddie Prinze Jr., but someone who doesn't represent anything beyond the slightly blah fact of being the world's best-known Chris Evans. Gosling has worked with Nicolas Winding Refn often enough to know he can survive empty exercises in so-called style unscathed, but is here caught reverting to his factory setting of mopey-faced blank: Markus and McFeely have to insert a subplot about our hero's protective relationship with Thornton's teenage daughter (Julia Butters) for him to show anything in the way of vital signs, and these scenes play like defanged, PG13-rated variants of the much funnier encounters between Gosling and Angourie Rice in Shane Black's The Nice Guys. De Armas, the childproofed Elena Anaya, continues to demonstrate the willingness to play third-wheel to the actions and desires of men that will doubtless serve her well in the less reconstructed corners of modern Hollywood. (Next up: her own Oscar shot, playing Marilyn Monroe in the Netflix-sponsored Blonde.)

No-one comes out of it well, all told: one of its newer (but dumber) ideas is to obscure Regé-Jean Page, oft-shirtless breakout of Netflix's Bridgerton, under wonk suit, nerd specs and unpersuasive American accent as the film's monodimensional villain. What are the meetings behind the scenes of these films like? Is there anyone with creative instincts around the boardroom table, or - and this would explain the films' leaden dullness of thought - is it just beancounters only? The business model of this new Netflix - as opposed to the old, DVD-renting Netflix, which more and more starts to seem like a quaint mom-and-pop operation - has sought to resolve the myriad problems of the contemporary cinema (unpredictable demographic shifts, the grimness of the exhibition space encouraging audiences to stay at home, a shortage of good ideas passing through the studio system) by throwing money at everything that moves. Yet the failure of the company's winter endeavours to clinch the Oscar has shown you can't buy the X factor that makes a disparate collective of Academy voters lean in your favour. The failure of The Gray Man - and however many eyes were drawn to it this past weekend, no matter that we're apparently set for a sequel and perhaps even a "Gray Man universe" (for shame), it does represent a near-total artistic failure - boils down to this: $200m can buy you a lot of scrap and spare parts. What it can't automatically get you, self-evidently in the case of this utterly anonymous, disposable, forgettable non-event movie, is even the thinnest sliver of personality.

The Gray Man is showing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Netflix. 

No comments:

Post a Comment