There are movies like Top Gun: Maverick so good that you only think about the insidious cultural forces that birthed them if you are an asshole like me. Then there are movies like The Gray Man, which are so boring that you can’t help but see every weird drone shot and flat line of dialogue as a bellwether for where we’re at in the unfolding history of “content creation,” in all the worst ways. Paste’s Jacob Oller hated The Gray Man a good deal more than I did. The movie manages a level of competence and craft that is the bare minimum for 2022 and certainly the bare minimum from the absurd amount of talent on offer: Besides headliners Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick shows up alongside freaking Billy Bob Thornton and Alfre Woodard. It’s directed by the guys who’ve brought you most of the biggest Marvel movies. And yet a few decent moments from Gosling and Evans are about all we get for the two hours of our time.
There’s some inventiveness and color to the action scenes, but it’s hard to figure out what the hell is going on when the camera is cutting in the middle of every single beat in the fight. The actors aren’t great at selling their gnarly wounds. The gunfights want to be stylish—and one that caps the movie’s second act is clearly trying to evoke the nihilism of a Grand Theft Auto rampage. It never quite gets there, just as nothing else in the film—its sentimental flashback, its gruesome torture scene, its aerial skydive combat—quite gets to wherever it is it’s supposedly going, emotionally or dramatically.
“Why did this thing get made?” is a stupid question to ask of a studio film, because the answer is to make money. How the studio perceives it is making money is really the question—and in the case of The Gray Man, or Red Notice, or any of the other recent star-studded-but-undercooked offerings in Netflix’s original film catalog, that’s the most interesting thing about it by far.
“B movie” didn’t used to mean a bad or shoddily made film, nor even one cranked out for a quick buck. It was fairly academic: Theaters used to sell a lot of double features, and the B movie was the feature meant to occupy the other half of the ticket opposite the more obvious draw. Back when talkies had hit theaters but television hadn’t yet infiltrated every single American household, it made financial sense for studios to shell out for lower-budget movies. After all, every movie couldn’t be The Wizard of Oz or Gone with the Wind, and the cheaper you made a movie, the sooner it made its budget back. All those actors and crew indentured to the old studio system’s truly draconian contracts needed work to keep them busy, anyhow. It made sense to crank out B movies, and it gave the world some of its most incredible stars and directors. Some are even still very much alive and kicking.
It also gave the world a lot of forgettable junk, cynical sequels or truly bad cinema, and there’s a reason the original model collapsed. That isn’t because a dearth of artistic merit has ever had consequences, mind you: It was really because TV became ubiquitous in the 1950s, and suddenly moving images were no longer a thing you needed to pay a ticket to go to a theater to see. Suddenly, people weren’t as willing to throw their pocket money at B movies in theaters, so much of the studio infrastructure and talent that was brought to bear on them simply repurposed their craft for television productions—witness the migration of the Western from movie theaters to television shows (until the point the genre, once an uncontroversial B movie staple, became so overexposed that international directors were inspired to hijack the genre to create syncretic antiheros and bizarre subgenres.
The rise of the studio system during Hollywood’s Golden Age created the conditions for those B movies, and it took a paradigm shift as earthshaking as the advent of TV (and, really, the downfall of the old studio system in the face of a growing labor movement and antitrust regulations) to change the nature of B movies. Looking at The Gray Man, which absolutely arises from some of the same motivations as those old features, I find myself wondering at the perverse incentives of the Streaming Wars that have gotten us here and pondering just what will inevitably bring an end to it.
Like the old studio system, streaming services are drowning in cash and interested in making sure their distribution models are as vertical as possible: The same Walt Disney who created the Buena Vista Film Distribution Company in part because RKO Pictures had pissed him off would have salivated at the idea of TV that only shows Disney productions that you need to pay monthly to watch. Netflix, a company that itself shook the pillars of the entertainment world with its streaming service, now finds itself flailing as its competitors have become the studios whose movies it used to exhibit. Every major production company has now leased its own massive server farms so that it can hoard its intellectual property and sell it back to us at $10 a month. It benefits Netflix (and Warner Brothers, and Disney, and Paramount, and on and on) to keep cranking out some content, any content, in the hopes it’ll make you and I watch a little longer and reconsider dropping our subscription so we can afford another half a gallon of gas or eighth of an insulin hypo this month.
Different paradigms in cinema history don’t perfectly map onto each other, of course: Superhero movies kind of fill the role of big studio Westerns or musicals of yesteryear, but they also differ from them significantly. And these high-profile, star-studded movies that land lazily on Netflix in a bid to keep you from dropping the service certainly aren’t exactly the same as B movies during that other Golden Age. Those older movies were a place where younger players and behind the scenes talent or journeyman directors could get their start: These appear to be a place for well-established stars and crew to rest their laurels. Those older movies, cheaply made as they often were, could have flashes of gonzo inspiration or even define new subgenres. Stuff like The Gray Man is not serving up any new ideas.
The Gray Man ends with a credits sequence in which scenes of the movie are recreated with CGI sculptures of the individual characters that have the appearance of gray metal—they look like cheap pewter. It surely wasn’t an intentional reminder that there wasn’t a lot going on in this movie, which came out of its mold looking the right shape but utterly drab.