America has an action movie problem, thanks to Netflix


You know what the Netflix movies “The Gray Man,” “Red Notice” and the Jamie Foxx vampire hunter splurch “Day Shift” accomplish? They make “Prey” over on Hulu look even better by comparison.

I saw all four in a marathon stream-a-thon at home the other day, interrupted by the usual interruptions and the occasional deployment of the pause button in order to, oh, you know: trip to the fridge, trip to the bathroom, trip to the alley when the garbage needed taking out. I watched these four action movies the way most of us stream most things: in a state of semi-distraction.

Here’s what I learned.

Many Netflix action movies are made for that state. they were made, possibly, in that same state of semi-distraction.

And a genuinely exciting movie, such as the “Predator” prequel “Prey,” can soar above the others not because it’s less violent (it isn’t; it’s a “Predator” movie), but because the filmmakers take their time and lean into matters of pace, rhythm and the occasional human emotion.

Every streaming platform measures success and hides failure differently. But taking Hulu’s numbers at face value, “Prey” is its most-watched premiere to date. The 20th Century Studios project, set in 1713 and filmed in Alberta, Canada, imagines a duel of wiles between the interstellar visitor introduced in the Arnold Schwarzenegger headbanger “Predator” (1987) and Comanche Nation tribeswoman Naru (Amber Midthunder).

Director Dan Trachtenberg shot “Prey” in both English-language and Comanche-language versions. The premise, which is inspired, and the execution, which is highly effective, work with all kinds of audiences. Quoted in a Looper.com story, Akwesasne Mohawk editor Vincent Schilling, founder of Native Viewpoint, responded to “Prey” all the way. “For once, as a Native man,” Schilling wrote, “I could actually relax and enjoy a film without waiting for the culturally inappropriate bomb to drop.”

No such concerns with “The Gray Man.” Brothers-directors Anthony Russo and Joseph Russo are angling for a shot at the James Bond realm, yet they’re blithely unconcerned with making a movie you remember an hour after you’ve handed Netflix the 115 viewing minutes, not including end credits, they because from you.

Ryan Gosling’s lethal but secretly vulnerable assassin Sierra Six (“007 was taken,” he jokes, or “jokes”) plays spy-vs.-spy with a rogue sociopathic assassin (Chris Evans) out to eliminate him. Prague, Vienna, London, Croatia: Some of the budget, reportedly $200 million, is on the screen. And yet money can’t buy an experience. Even the protagonist looks bored.

“Need anything?” someone asks Sierra Six on an airstrip somewhere in the middle of nowhere. “Just a nap,” Gosling replies.

No amount of torture sequences, bone-crunching smackdowns scored, ironically, to the soaringly upbeat “Silver Bird” ― not even Evans’ welcome zest — can make the Russo Bros. joint hang together. Here’s the punchline, to add to the movies’ own: The craft doesn’t matter. It’ll likely be a while before “The Gray Man,” described by Joe Russo in a recent Hollywood Reporter interview as “business-focused content,” drops out of the hallowed Netflix Top 10.

Late last year “Red Notice,” an even larger-scaled Netflix title (costing nearly $300 million, according to its director), operated on the same formula: Big stars (Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot) and poorly motivated globe- trotting action beats edited for maximum kinetic blur without the thrill of true action cinema.

“Red Notice” may be after a merry heist picture vibe, but like “The Gray Man,” it feels like it’s trying to out-Bond even the most bombastic recent Bond films. And I like most of the recent Bond films. The weakest of those, “Quantum of Solace,” proved that shorter didn’t make it better, and frantic cutting strategies have a way of slowing down an action sequence, not speeding it up. Watch “Jurassic World: Dominion” for more evidence. If you must.

Then re-watch the Tangier fight scene from “The Bourne Ultimatum,” featuring Matt Damon and Joey Ansah. Its extraordinarily fast cutting brakes right at the edge of visual incoherence — but it works. The death is taken seriously, and director Paul Greengrass doesn’t make it go down easily.

The death in “The Gray Man” doesn’t matter. The audience isn’t supposed to relate to the characters, beyond the kidnapped-girl routine. Sam Adams wrote a really good Slate piece titled “The Netflix Aesthetic,” in which he called the Russo’s business-focused content “far from the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but it might be one of the least.” If Year 3 of pandemic home streaming hasn’t lowered our standards for what constitutes a decent action movie, then I can’t wait for Year 4.

Netflix titles as ostensibly varied as “The Gray Man,” “Red Notice” and the Aug. 12 release “Day Shift” waste zero time on establishing who’s who and what’s what. There’s an algorithmic reason for that. Before changing its viewing measurement to total number of minutes streamed, Netflix counted a “view” of a film as at least two minutes of that film. This is why certain high-buck Netflix movies give you two choices: life-or-death, immediately, or characters you give a rip about.

“Prey” manages both. It establishes its Great Plains setting, its point on the historical timeline, and its threats and some particulars regarding the Comanche Nation warriors. Out of the tribe emerges Naru, the only one who can take on the Predator.The widescreen landscapes create both tension and release, beauty and imminent violence, vividly.

In a Variety interview Trachtenberg said: “I’ve worked in a lot of television where we’re always boxed in the format we have to work in. That was not the case here.” You can tell. His movie feels fresh and expansive. Even on a laptop screen, it concentrates your attention in a way “The Gray Man” or “Red Notice” or “Day Shift” does not.

Nearly a hundred years ago, in the Kaufman and Hart stage farce “Once in a Lifetime,” a Hollywood studio mogul spells out his approach to making movies: “No time wasted on thinking!”

That dubious spirit of content creation is alive and well today, and I suppose it helped sustain the industry as we know it. But there are screenwriters and directors and producers out there fighting that axiom from within. “Prey” fought, and won.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

Big screen or home stream, takeout or dine-in, Tribune writers are here to steer you toward your next great experience. Sign up for your free weekly Eat. watch. Do. newsletter here.

Leave a Comment