The Gray Man – Globalising Figures and Strategies

29 July, 2022

Netflix has recently released a new film, one in which it has invested heavily. It’s the kind of project through which the platform seeks to catch up with some of the current mainstream cinematic and cultural trends and prove that it can rival the big classic studios. The film is also a copy or replica that strives to attain the level of the original(s).

The Gray Man is a conventional crime thriller, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be viewed through the filter of its high stakes, being the most expensive film ever made by the platform, somewhere in the region of $200 million. All the more so since it’s common knowledge that Netflix is going through a period in which its revenues aren’t growing like they used to, and more and more streaming services are breathing down its neck. In the New York Times,  Jeff Sommer identifies and explains some of the reasons why the company is experiencing this turning point, without necessarily making any predictions. To give you a better idea, the company’s shares have fallen massively over the past six months, and now, on the eve of The Gray Man’s premiere, they are seeing a slight uptick. So, one of the unanswerable questions about this release inevitably also relates to money. The event can be seen as a statement, a show of strength; here we are, and we can pay the best actors and produce films at a high level. By contrast, the three most recent James Bond films (Skyfall, Spectre, No Time to Die) have had similar production costs: between $200 and $300 million.

 

It’s an interesting situation, forcing the company to ask questions of itself, to attempt to revitalize itself, to take risks. At the end of last year, it did just that with the phenomenal, controversial but not great Don’t Look Up ($75m), which kept cinephiles’ breath baited for a few days as the Netflix film became heavily discussed. The Gray Man, however, contains no such answer, as it’s no Stranger Things, Squid Game, 13 Reasons Why, Ozark or Narcos. But maybe I’m cheating when I’m lumping in movies with series. The format of VoD platforms suits these stories told in multiple episodes, because they don’t benefit from the darkness and big screen of a cinema, and have to compensate by being able to make people empathize more closely with the story and want to keep watching what happens. It’s safe enough to say that The Gray Man is not as good as Don’t Look Up and perhaps not as good as the two crime thriller series distributed by Netflix, Shooter and Bodyguard, were in their time a few years ago. And not because it’s more modestly crafted, but because the character’s story is presented in a manner that is too condensed and not as visually spectacular as it is in Top Gun: Maverick or Dune – to give two recent examples that need to be seen at the cinema to be felt at their true value. Here, perhaps, a slight contradiction arises: if it were shown in the cinema, the film wouldn’t carry any additional weight, but then at least we wouldn’t be tempted, from within the bounds of our intimate space, to pause it, to look in the cupboard for something to nibble on, and thus break its rhythm. What must be said is that The Gray Man is much rather a film that has the format (explosions, chases, stunts, sound design, etc.) of a product that is more suited to the cinema, but without offering anything new in the way of audiovisual spectacle.

It’s however promoted as something special, not to be missed – among other things, I’ve received two emails over the last month from Netflix, and one from IMDb about this release – the film tells a story that has been trivialized by repetition, built around fanciful government conspiracies set at the highest level of decision-making. Caught in the middle is Sierra Six, aka “The Gray Man” (Ryan Gosling), a former juvenile convict reclaimed early on by Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), the head of an elite CIA division. Faithful to the idea that a script must capture that particular turning point in a hero’s life, Six decides, while sent on a mission like dozens he’s before, that it’s time to change his approach or his fealty. As he finds out that he’s the last one left alive of the six agents that Fitzroy coordinated – the program failed – he realizes he’s the only one left who can deflect a cover-up (typical, would be the stereotypical suggestion of Mark Greaney’s signature novella) of those who rule the most powerful people in the world. The agent’s problem becomes a global one, stretching across Asia and Europe, which act as a “playground” where his kind can operate by flexing their muscles.

Once seen, The Gray Man has neither the traction, the complexity nor the delicacy, which may be the result of a character, a story, a song, or even a sequence, to make you want to rewatch it. Not even Ryan Gosling’s mysterious aura, refined and rehearsed in Drive (2011), Only God Forgives (2013), or Blade Runner 2049 (2017), creates that cult thrill. Not that the film is bad, but there’s a quite common problem at hand here: it takes itself far too seriously and fails to be playful or brave enough to stick to your mind. Brothers and co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo have experience in this field of blockbuster alchemy, they know what and how to dose, and they understand how to construct a contemporary epic, but they don’t seem to possess the elixir that would make the viewer obsessively revisit their universe. They’ve signed off on recent Marvel titles, perhaps the most complex of them being Avengers: Infinity War, which raised some serious questions and built a believable backstory for antagonist Thanos. Here, Chris Evans (also an antagonist this time, named Lloyd Hansen) plays an anti-Captain America, performing the private assassin who has no respect for the rules of the game, the laws of democracy, or honor in general.

Ryan Gosling on the set of The Gray Man

Alongside the three aforementioned actors, Ana de Armas (a role similar to the one in No Time to Die), the well-known Indian Dhanush, and the charismatic Regé-Jean Page from Bridgerton, who also appear consistently. It’s an eclectic cast, designed to please a wide swath of fans and simultaneously speaks to the film’s cosmopolitan ambitions. The geography in which the action takes place is carefully chosen. People move casually around central Europe: Prague, Vienna, Berlin, a castle that is narratively set in Croatia but is actually in France, Monaco, Budapest is brought up, and then we end up in Turkey. The characters move as if they were in one region. Among other things, it’s evidence of a good strategy to promote the film industry in these countries, which is part of a broader approach, appeal to entertainment and tourism. Events are also happening in a few more classic spots, such as London, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Bangkok, plus, a newcomer to the list, Baku. The ability of the characters to move easily across the continent(s) therefore makes the action somehow relatable to many categories of people, many nations, and reveals a portfolio or agenda. It seeks to engage us all, wherever we may live. It is a product that tries to totalize the great histories, cultures, and – why not – (mono)myths of today’s society, based, of course, on the past. It is – and probably wishes to be – a meta-history, a meta-narrative.

This continuous back-and-forth between places and peoples, the archetypal characters, the explosive chase scenes, and the choreography of titanically-presented clashes (see the sculpted bodies of the two adversaries), all constructed by combining remnants from blockbuster crime films, are part of the angle that The Gray Man is seeking out. And yet. Can it be instantly out of style? The answer is quite tricky because first, we have to see for whom it becomes dated, and against what ideal. Like Top Gun: Maverick seems to be aimed at spectators of the past, The Gray Man proposes this story of the hero built during the Cold War, which now is seemingly on its way out. It’s possible that this type of total character may no longer have the same traction. It’s just as likely that agents like 007 (“Six is a weird name”; “Yeah. It’s just that 007 was taken, so…”) become antiquated, unrealistic, the product of generations gone by. It may be so. But that doesn’t mean we no longer need heroes, perhaps not for their original purposes (superhuman: übermensch), but in a therapeutic sense. We watch them with bated breath and, for a moment, an hour or a day, we desire the things they are capable of doing, we want them to protect us and we feel a little more secure.

Despite having a standardized, overly-modest approach that only risks its budget, and despite Netflix’s inability to revitalize itself with novel cinematic ideas and concepts, The Gray Man is still interesting, and I’d say that it achieves this globalizing goal. It represents the expression of producers, decision-makers, and office people, all of whom invest not inasmuch into the product as they do in its promotion and packaging, because they know that’s where the numbers and the money come from.



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When the CIA\'s most skilled operative-whose true identity is known to none-accidentally uncovers dark agency secrets, a psychopathic former colleague puts a bounty on his head, setting off a global manhunt by international assassins.

Ion Indolean has a degree in film studies and a PhD in history. He teaches at the Faculty of Theatre and Film, UBB. He contributes to Observator cultural, PressOne, LiterNet and is active in the organization of TIFF festival. He directed the features Toni & Friends (2020), premiered in Warsaw, and Discordia (2016), awarded for debut at TIFF. He enjoys watching any "bad" commercial film. He has seen, like any self-respecting millennial, Bloodsport with van Damme about 30 times. In high school, he left White Ribbon in horror, only for Haneke to become one of his favorite directors.