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The Gray Man stinks! Why Netflix has never made a great action movie

Few streaming services have worked as hard as Netflix has in recent years to launch a true blockbuster. The Gray Man has been a tremendous success for the service, at least according to their own internal metrics, but it’s hardly the first time that they’ve attempted to launch a piece of original intellectual property by throwing massive amounts of money at it. In spite of all that money, though, Netflix has yet to produce the kind of brilliant action spectacle that makes for a truly great movie.

That doesn’t mean, though, that Netflix has never made a great movie. Plenty of their prestige, awards-season plays have totally panned out, and movies like The Power of the Dog and Marriage Story have proven that the streamer can get behind great movies. In the world of action, though, their movies have been pretty thoroughly lacking. The Gray Man is just one of many attempts that seems great on paper but doesn’t ultimately deliver on its promise.

And The Gray Man isn’t alone: Red Notice, 6 Underground, Extraction, and The Army of the Dead are all movies that came and went fairly quickly and had virtually no legacy in the pop culture imagination. That’s not to say that all of these movies are irredeemably awful, but the action movies that debut on Netflix often seem like pale imitations of similar types of movies that still debut on the big screen.

Netflix needs to take a prestige approach to its blockbusters

Two of the more successful action movies to debut on Netflix, at least in terms of their stickiness, were The Old Guard and Triple Frontier. Those movies, for all their faults, were decent in part because they didn’t seem to be totally fueled by the needs of the algorithm. Instead, they had at least some personal flair from the filmmakers behind them, and especially in the case of The Old Guard, they were also weighted with some serious thematic heft.

Unfortunately, projects like these are outliers in Netflix’s action oeuvre, even if they are still common in other parts of the service. If the streamer is serious about making the quality of its content better, it should consider taking the approach to its action movies that it already takes in the prestige space: Give trusted creative voices the chance to make whatever they want, and pray that the results are as good as you’d hoped.

Of course, this approach comes freighted with some risk. Not every creative endeavor is going to pan out, and sometimes, even great directors and writers don’t ultimately make successful projects. To Netflix’s credit, it seems like they gave the Russo brothers a fairly free hand on The Gray Man, although the result was less than a slam dunk.

Part of the reason The Gray Man failed to satisfy action snobs is its heavy reliance on CGI. In 2022, the best action often feels a lot more like what’s in Top Gun: Maverick. Having a movie star like Tom Cruise anchoring the project certainly doesn’t hurt anything either, but what makes Maverick work is that Cruise and the filmmakers spent their money on the right things. Instead of dedicating a large chunk of their budget to CGI, they went the other way, filming as much of the movie as practically possible.

In an era where anything is possible with a computer, what viewers crave is a sense that there is something tangible on screen, and that is what so many of Netflix’s biggest action vehicles have lacked.

Netflix has no incentive to change its ways

There are certainly plenty of action fans out there who have found Netflix’s entries in the genre to be wanting, but for plenty of others, Netflix’s output is fulfilling the purpose it exists for. The Gray Man is not a great action movie if all you’re doing is putting your phone down to watch it. If you’re second-screening, though, or folding laundry, then The Gray Man is exactly as good as it needs to be.

Your time is Netflix’s money

If you want to do some chores and need something to put on in the background, Extraction might do the trick. These movies, for whatever their admirable qualities may be, aren’t meant to completely absorb you. They’re there to keep you logged in, and Netflix doesn’t really care if you put the movie on to take detailed notes or because you like to have something on in the background. Your time is their money, and the popularity of all of these action movies suggests that they know exactly what they’re doing.

For as much as an action snob may want Netflix to find a way to start making these action movies better, then, the truth of the matter is that the service has very little incentive to start doing anything differently. They have the eyeballs they need on these movies, even if all of them evaporate from your brain the second the credits start to roll.

Streaming won’t save the action movie

Tom Cruise looks down in Top Gun: Maverick.

There are plenty of kinds of movies that streaming has proven to be remarkably adept at revitalizing. A separate conversation about romantic comedies is necessary, but it’s hard to deny that Netflix and its ilk have allowed the genre to exist in a way it no longer does in the theater. The same is true of mid-budget, awards season fare. While studios still make those kinds of movies, streamers like Apple and Netflix have also made plenty of great movies in that mold.

When it comes to action spectacle, though, the streamers haven’t cracked the code yet. And so, those of us who love action movies and all that they represent can’t look to these services as the source of our salvation. Fortunately, though, the big screen has had the kind of offerings that so often seem to be missing on Netflix.

Top Gun: Maverick isn’t alone. The past few years have seen a glut of good to great action movies on this big screen, from the John Wick series to Mad Max to Mission: Impossible. Even Bullet Train seems to be at least slightly ahead of where most Netflix titles fall. These theatrical experiences have been the backbone of the action movie for decades, and despite streaming’s disruptive promise, it seems like that model isn’t going anywhere.

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