CLEVELAND, Ohio — Before they became the most commercially successful directing duo in Hollywood, Joe and Anthony Russo were big movie fans. Growing up in Cleveland, the brothers loved going to the theater to see action movies, in particular, quoting them and then watching them again at home on their VCR.
“The Gray Man,” opening in select theaters on Friday before premiering on Netflix on July 22, is the kind of film they always wanted to make.
“This is reminiscent of the movies we loved growing up,” Joe said. “This is a big, fun summer action movie.”
• Review: ‘The Gray Man’ is a fun, action-packed spy thriller
• Stream: Subscribe to Netflix to watch ‘The Gray Man’ starting July 22
But somehow “big” doesn’t seem like an adequate enough word to describe it. Based on a series of books by Mark Greaney, “The Gray Man” is an old-fashioned spy thriller with a reported $200 million budget, making it the most expensive Netflix film ever. It features an A-list cast, multiple international locations and several huge, elaborate set pieces that will, frankly, take your breath away.
“We love going into a movie theater and having a very strong, visceral, emotional experience. So, we try to recreate that in the work that we do,” Anthony said. “This movie is very intense, very edge of your seats and the kind of movie that you forget to eat your popcorn while you’re watching.”
“What we loved about the book was that it was relentless from start to finish,” added Joe, who also wrote the screenplay with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. “It made for a very exciting read and hopefully we’ve made an exciting movie.”
He and his brother have nothing to worry about. The movie is indeed a two-hour thrill ride. Not to mention, the Russos have one of the most impressive track records in the industry, having directed two “Captain America” movies and two “Avengers” films. The movie represents their return to the blockbuster game after “Cherry”, a smaller and more personal film, was a critical disappointment.
“We’ve made movies in our career for as little money as you could possibly make a movie for and we’ve made movies for as much money as you could possibly make a movie for and it feels the same from our end,” Anthony said.
“The Gray Man” in the title is Court Gentry, a man serving time for murder at the beginning of the film who is recruited by the CIA to work in the shadows and kill bad guys.
“He’s so deep undercover that there’s not even a record of him in the CIA,” Anthony explained. “There have been many amazing versions of the spy genre through the decades and, if you’re going to take a stab at it, we really wanted to try hard to find an original way into the storytelling that brought something fresh. So, we liked anchoring this story around this character who wants to disappear, who’s always anonymous.”
For the role, the directors cast Ryan Gosling, an actor who has made a few action movies but is not known as a prolific action movie star.
“Ryan Gosling is like a master of minimalism. He can convey so much emotion, so much thought, so much complexity, texture and charisma by doing very little. That seemed to marry beautifully to the character,” Anthony said. “He took himself physically to places he’s never been before in his career. He very much became that character.”
Early in the film, the character, who goes by the name Six after his identity is erased, uncovers some dirty agency secrets that make him the subject of an intense global manhunt led by Lloyd Hansen, an unhinged, but results-oriented ex-CIA agent who Joe describes as an “agent of chaos.”
“We wanted (the character) to be evocative of some of the extremist groups that are popping up around the world today,” he said.
Chris Evans, who starred as Captain America in the four Marvel films directed by the Russo, plays Lloyd.
“He told us when we were making ‘Endgame,’ he said, ‘Listen, I’ve had a great run with Marvel and I’m at a really comfortable place and I just want to take risks for the rest of my career, ‘” Joe said. “That’s when we thought of him as the villain instead of the hero. He and Ryan together are fantastic.”
Gosling and Evans are in fact a blast to watch, as they chase each other across Europe, exchanging witty banter and a few fisticuffs along the way. Speaking of those fight scenes, the film has some of the most intense and intricately choreographed action sequences ever seen on the big screen. Fans of “The Bourne Identity” and “Mission: Impossible” franchises should get a kick watching Gosling escape a crashing plane or him and co-star Ana de Armas (“No Time To Die”) going up against Tamil cinema star Dhanush (in his Hollywood debut) in a spirited showdown in a hospital.
“We spent many, many months dreaming up what the sequences could be,” Anthony said. “We were really just trying to create something that felt very intense and real and the audience could feel it.”
The centerpiece is a nearly 10-minute scene that took six weeks to shoot. It begins with Gosling being handcuffed to a bench in the center of Prague and ends with him jumping off a runaway Metro train with many, many gunshots, explosions and car crashes in between.
“I think it was comparable to what happened in Cleveland when we had to shut down the freeway for two weeks,” Joe said, referring to when he and Anthony filmed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” on the shoreway in 2013. “We still apologize for that.”
Shooting on location as opposed to on a soundstage in front of a green screen provided a myriad of challenges for the directors. But Joe said the payoff is worth it, particularly in a film like this one that’s grounded in reality and not fantasy.
“It adds a level of realism for the actors,” he said. “It gives them that geography to act opposite of and it helps us as filmmakers to define the action sequences based on all the real-world elements that we’re dealing with.”
The result is the Russo Brothers’ most cinematic film to date. The irony is that most people will probably see it not on the big screen, but at home. That’s something they’re OK with.
“Netflix can have a massive cultural impact,” Joe said. “Anthony and I like the cutting-edge approach that technology brings to distribution. We also like democratizing storytelling and we think that’s something that streamers do very well because they reach audiences all over the world of any sort of economic class. Going to the movies is expensive for a lot of people. So, we’re happy for people to experience the story however suits them best.”
Their next movie, “The Electric State,” is also headed to Netflix. Perhaps after that, they’ll return to the world of “The Gray Man.” Besides Gosling, Evans, de Armas and Dhanush, the film stars young bright stars like Regé-Jean Page (“Bridgerton”) and Jessica Henwick (“The Matrix Resurrections”).
“One of the things that we discovered during the four movies we made in the MCU is that Joe and I love serialized storytelling,” Anthony said. “This movie has a really large ensemble, wonderful characters, wonderful actors. We feel like it’s the kind of narrative where moving forward we can follow any one or any group of those characters, either into the future or into the past. We’re very excited about other iterations of this story.”
“The Gray Man” is rated PG-13 and opens in select theaters on July 15 before premiering on Netflix on July 22.