Why Does Netflix Keep Churning Out Action Movie Knockoffs?

How "Heart of Stone," "Red Notice" and "The Gray Man" became Netflix action "mockbusters"

August 21, 2023 6:33 am
Collage of actors in Netflix action movies, including Ryan Reynolds, Chris Evans and Gal Galdot.
Netflix's most recent action movie "Heart of Stone" calls attention to a pattern of "mockbusters" that miss the mark.

Gal Gadot is a movie star. Not necessarily because she commands a built-in audience of devoted fans, but because what she does, as a job, is star in big movies. She has starred as Wonder Woman three times, co-starred in Fast & Furious movies another three times, and, in between these, appeared as an extremely glamorous bait-and-switch murder victim with enough champagne to fill the Nile. Generally, when she is not starring in big movies, it’s not because she’s doing small ones; it’s because she’s doing cameos in other big ones. In 2023 alone, she flitted into other movies for two appearances as Wonder Woman and one as Gisele, her previously deceased Fast & Furious character. The closest thing to an indie movie that Gadot has made is the 2014 Israeli comedy Kicking Out Shoshana, in the sense that it was not theatrically released in the United States. 

Such is Gadot’s devotion to the craft of headlining big-budget studio movies that she will have Netflix make them up for her when the traditional Big Five studios do not oblige. Hence Red Notice, a caper/action movie starring Gadot, Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds in pursuit of some valuable object or another; and now Heart of Stone, a spy/action movie starring Gadot as a double-agent in pursuit of some world-altering device or another. Spy/caper/action vehicles like these typically shoot way up the Netflix charts despite reviews that most generously refer to them as actual movies, and less magnanimously will break out the c-word: This is content, something designed to make Netflix look like they could, at any minute, maybe create (and stream in perpetuity or until it becomes a tax liability) the next Mission: Impossible, without actually ever doing that.

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This isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it purely a Netflix thing. Earlier this year, Apple’s Ghosted brought The Gray Man’s Chris Evans and Ana de Armas back into the fake-spy fray, while Amazon has already recombined Evans with Red Notice’s Dwayne Johnson for the (unrelated, and therefore confusingly titled) action-comedy Red One, coming this Christmas. Theoretically, these movies should delight, or at least not actively irritate, movie fans who bemoan the sheer volume of world-expanding sequels, spinoffs and reboots that fill up the multiplexes. Barbie and Oppenheimer may have made for an unusual and deeply satisfying one-two auteur punch at the summer box office, but even if studios actually learn the right lessons from those movies (rather than green-lighting Dawn of Midge and Oppenheimer Origins: Edward Teller), our immediate future is still sequel-heavy, with seven of September’s nine new wide releases following up some previous film.

Heart of Stone, Red Notice, Ghosted and The Gray Man, on the other hand, are theoretical throwbacks to the days of breezy big-budget star vehicles. As a group, if not in their specific craft, they vaguely recall movies like The Thomas Crown Affair, Charade, Romancing the Stone, The Long Kiss Goodnight and, yes, various missions both impossible and James Bond-approved. If they’re made with sequel potential in mind, at least they would inspire relatively new sequels, rather than those at or approaching double digits. And if they’re not precisely grown-up in sensibility, at least they don’t appear to be aimed at 12-year-old boys specifically.

So how, specifically, is Heart of Stone? The thing about that is: Does it matter? The story features airport-novel characters fighting their way through MI/Bond/Fast & Furious claptrap — uninspired, but it could hit the spot in the right context. Technically, director Tom Harper does a better job of blockbuster forgery than a lot of other Netflix filmmakers, in no small part because his movie was largely shot on actual 35mm film stock, giving it richer shadows, poppier pops of color and some actual grain to its (largely unremarkable) imagery. It’s a break from the uncannily antiseptic sheen of so many Netflix movies, which makes their forays into green-screenery even less convincing.

As such, Heart of Stone would probably play better in an actual movie theater than either Red Notice or The Gray Man, both of which I improbably trekked out of the house to see (and both of which felt somewhat less ersatz than some other Netflix movies by virtue of not being able to pause them; a small but noticeable bump courtesy of the theatrical experience and almost nothing about the actual filmmaking). I was not able to do the same for Heart of Stone, because Netflix quietly curtailed the release plan it typically utilizes on its biggest star vehicles, where they play in some major cities for a week or two before their Netflix debut. Nearest I can tell, Heart of Stone is only playing in Los Angeles, at a theater that Netflix runs, where it opened simultaneously with its streaming debut. I watched it just as Netflix (if not necessarily the filmmakers) intended: on my couch, after my kid went to bed, rewinding one part where I nodded off and discovering that I didn’t materially miss anything. 

It’s that intangible, illusory, snooze-and-miss-nothing quality that so flummoxes so many critics who feel obligated to check out the latest Netflix mockbuster. Heart of Stone has a somewhat bigger target on its back courtesy of Gadot, who, on the basis of the nastiness directed toward her, must give off all the warmth and relatability of those “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” ads from decades ago. Yet as Wonder Woman (and, to a lesser extent, in other movies), Gadot does have real movie-star presence, a guileless inability to disguise herself. In those superhero films, that quality becomes almost touching: She’s a fish out of water (whether unaccustomed to the ways of mankind or simply standing slightly outside of it) with no heart for true deception. Her particular form of beauty is — at least as Diana Prince — truly difficult to hate. 

The problem in a movie like Heart of Stone is that despite her demigoddess battle scenes and Fast & Furious history, Gadot isn’t really an action star. She can move through her fights with a modicum of grace, and the Stone team can CG her into high-speed motorcycle chases or Bond-like ski-slope derring-do, but she’s not adept at disguising the fakeness. She’s not fervent, like Tom Cruise, or sincerely contemplative, like Keanu Reeves, or athletic like Tony Jaa or Jason Statham. Without that Wonder Woman aura and accompanying mythos, there’s not much conviction behind the fisticuffs. 

That’s how a lot of these Netflix blockbusters play: like low-tier superhero pictures stripped of their costumes. That sounds potentially appealing, even sexy; by all means, let’s see the charismatic likes of Gadot, Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds or Chris Evans caper around without the superhuman shields (metaphorical or literal) of Wonder Woman, Black Adam, Deadpool or Captain America. Let’s see the less branded movie-star careers they might have had outside the extended-universe industrial complex. 

Yet rather than making the case for their stardom, these Netflix projects make their stars feel like off-brand versions of themselves. (The hilariously unexpected exception: Adam Sandler, who has done some of the best comic work of his later-period career since signing a years-long Netflix contract.) If performers like Gadot, Reynolds and Johnson can seem singularly focused on maximizing revenue, their affiliations with second-rate streaming content start to resemble false-flag operations designed to bolster their quota — or, less nefariously, at least elaborate prop-up schemes like the cardboard town in Blazing Saddles. It’s a way of corporatizing star quality, turning it into a manufactured brand even when superficially imitating sui generis charm. 

Then again, could some of this be confirmation bias, formulated by watching movies on our TVs and then astutely pointing out that they’re kinda like TV movies? Maybe: Heart of Stone isn’t quite as weightless or witless as the spy games of Red Notice or The Gray Man, but per the Tomatometer and related metrics, it’s even worse-regarded so far. I found it far too silly to get mad about, and at least some Netflix subscribers must genuinely enjoy these things, rather than passively tolerate them. (Then again, people could just look forward to laundry movies, or fiddle-around-on-your-phone movies, like a gulp of diet soda.) Moreover, at a time when Hollywood actors are on strike, threatened by shrinking residuals and digital scans of their likenesses, Netflix mockbusters are a powerful reminder that throwing a bunch of capital in an algorithm’s direction doesn’t cut to the chase; it cuts to a downhill coast, in vain hopes of bypassing the hard stuff — the personalities that make filmmaking unpredictable and risky. A movie like Heart of Stone does wind up as a testament to the power of movie stars. But maybe not in the way that Netflix thinks.

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