A screenshot of the gray man shows chris evans and several other actors staring off into the distance
Image via Google Images

‘The Gray Man’ Shows Netflix’s Love Affair With Mediocre Movies

The streaming giant’s recent release is a frustratingly dull action film, starring two actors who have given much, much better performances.

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A screenshot of the gray man shows chris evans and several other actors staring off into the distance
Image via Google Images

The streaming giant’s recent release is a frustratingly dull action film, starring two actors who have given much, much better performances.

Every once in a while, a movie will come out that runs completely on star power, relying on the charm and popularity of its cast to carry the story. Sometimes this strategy works, but most of the time, it doesn’t. Unfortunately, “The Gray Man” is proof of that. Almost all the anticipation for the film came from the fact that Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans — two of the most popular actors in Hollywood right now — starred in the movie, along with Ana de Armas, Regé-Jean Page and Billy Bob Thornton. To tell the truth, the story could’ve been anything. What people really wanted to see was Gosling and Evans face off. In that respect, the movie doesn’t disappoint. In almost every other way, though, “The Gray Man” is a forgettable mess.

Of course, movies that set out to purely entertain have their place. Many people only watch films to lay aside their troubles for a couple of hours and fall into a story that will grip them, and this is perfectly understandable. So, yes, we need entertaining movies. But the thing is, it’s not impossible to make a movie that’s both entertaining and intelligent, that trusts its viewers enough to challenge them, even in the smallest of ways. Some of the best examples of smart, fresh and entertaining movies are “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” two of which won several awards. In other words, “entertaining” is not a synonym for “dumb” in the movie world. Yet so many of the films made for entertainment are dull despite their loud action sequences, and uninspired despite their attempts to pull at your heartstrings. “The Gray Man” is one of those movies.

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo (two names you’ll probably recognize from Marvel credits), “The Gray Man” follows a CIA operative named Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) who is forced to go on the run after accidentally uncovering some of the agency’s top secrets. Private contractor Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), his former peer at the CIA, is hot on his heels to get back this confidential information. As you might be able to guess, the movie doesn’t exactly have a complex or interesting plot; it’s more of a confusing mashup of every spy thriller you’ve seen, or, as Variety’s review puts it, an “over-the-top attempt by Netflix to capture the magic of blockbuster thrillers like the 007 movies.” “Over-the-top” is right, considering the film is one of Netflix’s most expensive investments with a budget of $200 million — $200 million that basically went right down the drain.

All of this is to say that “The Gray Man” is just … fine. Technically, it’s not awful; Netflix has put out far worse films. But the movie’s complete mediocrity is frustrating, to say the least. Besides some loud explosions, the only thing it has going for it is a trio of Hollywood stars. Despite this, they’re muzzled by a predictable, boring script and as a result, are unable to take their characters or the movie to a more interesting place.

Ryan Gosling remains eternally expressionless, and thus, unsympathetic. Chris Evans seems to have fun as a sociopathic torturer. Still, his run as the goodie-two-shoes Captain America dampens his fear factor considerably — plus, he’s basically doing the same thing he did in “Knives Out,” with the addition of a mustache. And Ana de Armas, unfortunately, doesn’t even really have a character. She saves Ryan Gosling’s character Six a few times, but besides that, she hardly exists within the film. Each of these actors has given great performances in the past — Chris Evans in “Snowpiercer,” Ryan Gosling in “The Nice Guys” and Ana de Armas in “Knives Out” are just a few examples — so it’s really not them, but the mindless story that they signed up for.

One good thing that could possibly come from “The Gray Man” is more discussion around what I call the “Netflix quality problem.” Recently, some have pointed out that the streaming giant’s original movies have started to decline in quality ever since the pandemic hit. Pre-2020, Netflix released quite a few high-caliber films, many of which earned Oscar nominations, including “Roma,” “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman.” And though they have put out some critically acclaimed films since 2020, such as “The Power of the Dog” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” there’s no doubt that their ratio of good to bad quality movies has definitely shifted in that time.

As one writer put it, “For every The Irishman or Roma … there is a crop of generic, flat action movies such as the critically-derided The Last Days of American Crime, or at least five low-effort Adam Sandler vehicles like Murder Mystery … Simply and frankly put, Netflix’s mediocre content outweighs its notable selections.” But unlike some of those Adam Sandler movies, “The Gray Man” isn’t embarrassingly bad — it’s just a whole lot of nothing.

Since it really took off as a provider of original content, Netflix has generally balanced mindless fun with some thought-provoking dramas, often skewing toward the former. “The Gray Man” is yet another entry into that first category. Yes, viewers want to be entertained, and action movies are a great way to do that. But if the top producers at Netflix invested in more innovative or at least more original stories and characters — they are called Netflix “originals,” after all — rather than in big names and big sets, then their movies might stay on people’s radars for longer than the few days after they release. They might actually spur conversation among viewers and, heaven forbid, emotion. Their characters might really affect us and even lead us to think about things just a little differently, the way all good movies should.

Netflix is by no means unfamiliar with making good movies — they just need to push themselves to choose quality over quantity. But in a world where success is judged based on a complex algorithm instead of viewers’ reactions, we shouldn’t get our hopes up for any change coming soon.

Writer Profile

Alina Edwards

Wellesley College
English

I am a rising sophomore and English major at Wellesley College who loves all things writing, reading and film.

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