You know the Netflix movie “The Gray Man,” “Red Notice” and the upcoming vampire hunter Jamie Foxx slurch “Day Shift” reached? They make “Prey” on Hulu look even better by comparison.
I watched all four of them in a marathon-a-thon stream at home the other day, distracted by the usual interruptions and the occasional use of the pause button for, oh, you know: trips to the fridge, trips to the bathroom, trips down the aisle when the trash needed to be taken out. I watched these four action films like most of us stream things: in a semi-disturbed state.
This is what I learned.
A lot of Netflix’s action movies are made for that circumstance. They are made, perhaps, in the same semi-disturbed state.
And truly compelling films, like the “Predator” prequel “Prey,” can soar above the rest not because it’s less violent (it’s not; it’s a “Predator” film), but because the filmmakers took their time and leaned into a speed issue, human rhythms and emotions.
Each streaming platform measures success and hides failure differently. But taking Hulu’s numbers at face value, “Prey” is the most-watched premiere to date. The 20th Century Studios project, set in 1713 and filmed in Alberta, Canada, envisions a devious duel between the interstellar visitor introduced in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s headbanger “Predator” (1987) and the Comanche Nation’s tribal woman Naru (Amber Midthunder).
Director Dan Trachtenberg recorded “Prey” in English and Comanche language versions. The premise, which is inspired, and the execution, which is highly effective, work with all types of audiences. Quoted in Looper.com story, Akwesasne Mohawk editor Vincent Schilling, founder of Native Viewpoint, took “Prey” completely. “For once, as a Native,” Schilling wrote, “I can really relax and enjoy a movie without waiting for the culturally inappropriate bomb to drop.”
There is no such concern with “The Gray Man.” Brothers Anthony Russo and Joseph Russo want to dive into the world of James Bond, but they don’t really care about making a movie that you remember an hour after you gave Netflix 115 minutes of viewing, excluding the end credits, they want from you.
Killer Ryan Gosling’s deadly but secretly vulnerable Sierra Six (“007 is taken,” he jokes, or “joke”) plays a spy-vs-spy with an evil sociopathic killer (Chris Evans) out to eliminate him. Prague, Vienna, London, Croatia: Several budgets, reportedly $200 million, are on display. But money can’t buy experience. Even the protagonist looks bored.
“Need something?” someone asked Sierra Six on an airstrip somewhere in the middle of nowhere. “Just a nap,” Gosling replied.
Ironically, none of the torture sequences, the bone-chilling thumping, to the soaring “Silver Bird” song that even Evans’ welcome spirit—couldn’t make a Russo Bros. mix. unite. Here’s the funny thing, to add to the film itself: Crafting doesn’t matter. It may be a while before “The Gray Man,” described by Joe Russo recently Hollywood Reporter Interview as “business-focused content,” out of sanctified Netflix Top 10.
Late last year “Red Notice,” a Netflix title on a larger scale (according to its director costing nearly $300 million), operates on the same formula: Big stars (Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot) and less worlds. motivated. The running action beats are edited for maximum kinetic blur without the thrill of true action cinema.
“Red Notice” may be after a festive heist image vibe, but like “The Gray Man,” it feels like it’s trying to outshine even the most bombastic of recent Bond films. And I love most of the latest Bond films. The weakest of them, the “Quantum of Solace,” proves that shorter doesn’t make it better, and the frantic cutting strategy has a way of slowing down action sequences, not speeding them up. Watch “Jurassic World: Dominion” for more evidence. If you have to.
Then watch it again Tangier fight scene from “The Bourne Ultimatum,” featuring Matt Damon and Joey Ansah. Its incredibly fast cutting brakes are right on the edge of visual incoherence — but it works. Death is taken seriously, and director Paul Greengrass doesn’t take it down easily.
Death in “The Gray Man” doesn’t matter. The audience is not supposed to relate to the characters, outside of the kidnapped girl’s routine. Sam Adams wrote very good slice of Slate titled “The Netflix Aesthetic,” in which he called Russo’s business-focused content “far from the worst film I’ve ever seen, but perhaps one of the few.” If Year 3 of the pandemic home stream hasn’t lowered our standards for what constitutes a decent action film, then I can’t wait for Year 4.
Netflix’s ostensibly varied titles like “The Gray Man,” “Red Notice” and the August 12 release “Day Shift” wasted no time in establishing who and what. There is an algorithmic reason for that. Before converting its view size to the total number of streaming minutes, Netflix counts a movie’s “views” as at least two minutes of the movie. This is why certain high-value Netflix movies give you two choices: live or die, soon, or the characters you tell.
“Prey” manages both. It establishes the setting of its Great Plains, its point in the historical timeline, and its threats and some specifics regarding Comanche Nation soldiers. From the tribe emerges Naru, the only one who can fight the Predators. The big screen landscape creates tension and release, beauty and violence that’s imminent, vividly.
In a Variety interview Trachtenberg said: “I’ve worked on a lot of television where we’ve always packed up the format we have to work in. That’s not the case here.” You can tell. The film feels fresh and expansive. Even on a laptop screen, it focuses your attention in a way that “The Gray Man” or “Red Notice” or “Day Shift” don’t.
Nearly a hundred years ago, in Kaufman and Hart’s stage play “Once in a Lifetime,” a Hollywood studio mogul explained his approach to filmmaking: “No time is wasted thinking!”
That dubious passion for content creation is alive and well today, and I think it’s helped sustain the industry as we know it. But there are screenwriters and directors and producers out there who are fighting that axiom from within. “Prey” fought, and won.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
Big screen or home streaming, takeout or dine-in, the Tribune writers are here to steer you towards your next great experience. Sign up for your free weekly Meal. Watch. Work. bulletin here.