The Gray Man, a new thriller by Marvel maestros Anthony and Joe Russo, has the perfect ingredients for a summer blockbuster: a hero with a mysterious past (Ryan Gosling), an appalling villain (Chris Evans) and relentless, edge-of-the seat action.
What sets this film apart from the usual summer blockbuster, however, is the way it is being released. Netflix, which financed the roughly $200mn film, is opening The Gray Man on Friday in 23 markets for just one week before it moves exclusively to the streaming service. Action fans will need to move fast if they want to catch it in a cinema.
The strategy seems especially unusual for a movie directed by two of the highest-earning film-makers in history, and for a film that is dropping just as the box office is rebounding strongly from its pandemic nadir on the back of Top Gun: Maverick’s $1bn-plus haul.
But the Russo brothers, legendary in Hollywood for their four-film run at Marvel that brought in a collective $7bn, are taking the longer view. They see The Gray Man turning into a franchise, much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they expect Netflix to widen theatrical releases for big movies like this one in future.
“We made this movie as big cinema,” says Anthony Russo, 52, over Zoom from Ireland. “I think it’s going to be a very special experience for people in the theatre because we certainly built the movie that way. But we’re equally excited to reach folks via Netflix as well.”
His younger brother, Joe, 50, speaking from Idaho, adds: “I think you’ll see that Netflix is going to start incorporating much larger theatrical windows into a couple of their bigger projects every year because they see the tremendous value in the pop culture impression that makes.”
Welcome to the upside-down world of Hollywood in 2022. After the onset of the pandemic, locked-down viewers embraced streaming like never before, sending Netflix’s stock price into the stratosphere while traditional studios rushed to promote their own nascent streaming services. Suddenly, Disney and Warner Bros began to debut big movies — most famously Marvel’s Black Widow — on their streaming services at the same time as they opened in cinemas, if they opened in cinemas at all.
Now, in the wake of the great Netflix Correction this spring — the company’s shares plunged after it revealed that it was losing, not gaining, subscribers — old-fashioned box office revenue is back in vogue. “[Netflix] had an amazing run during the incredible stock market over the last four or five years before they hit a big bump in the road,” says Joe. “But they think like a tech company, so they can shift depending on what the market is dictating. As evidenced by the box office this summer, there’s tremendous value in the theatrical experience again.”
Netflix hasn’t announced plans to change its approach to theatrical releases, which are always brief and often done only to qualify for awards. The company says subscribers are the priority — their monthly fees pay for the content, after all — and they shouldn’t have to wait to watch movies at home. But the pressure is growing. Cinema owners are itching to show more Netflix movies, while the talent always craves the widest release possible.
The Gray Man marks the Russos’ first foray into action films in their 25-year career, which has spanned quirky comedies (You, Me and Dupree), TV (Arrested Development), the record-breaking run at Marvel, and last year’s lower-budget crime drama Cherry, which was released on Apple TV Plus . . .
But the brothers have been fans of the action genre since their youth. As they conceived the film they were inspired by William Friedkin’s 1971 classic The French Connection, the work of John Frankenheimer and Die Hard director John McTiernan.
The Gray Man is based on Mark Greaney’s 2009 novel of the same name: he has since written a dozen books in the series, so it is a natural candidate for a film franchise. Joe Russo wrote the screenplay along with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the writing duo behind the Russos’ Marvel quartet.
“We like movies that make you forget to eat your popcorn because it’s so relentless,” Joe says. “The book had that quality to it. We love when action really highlights character or advances the story in an interesting way.”
The Russos had wanted to make the film for nine years, but were too busy with the Marvel projects to squeeze it in. Work began in July 2020, three years after they formed their own production company, AGBO.
The story revolves around a CIA operative, Court Gentry (Gosling) code-named Sierra Six, who is recruited from federal prison by Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) to work on deadly top-secret missions. Sierra Six becomes a target of rogue elements within the CIA, who hire the psychopathic bounty hunter Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) to hunt him down. The cast also features Ana de Armas as agent Dani Miranda and Regé-Jean Page as the ruthless CIA group chief.
Joe Russo says he and his co-writers wanted to inject current themes from US politics into the film, including the idea that extremists could infiltrate parts of the US government. At the centre of this plot point is Lloyd, a sadistic and darkly comic character who was ousted from the CIA for unauthorised use of torture and a lack of impulse control.
“He’s a highly entertaining character rooted in some modern themes — his costume and ideology is reflective of some extremist groups that have popped up around the country over the last few years,” says Joe. “He’s certainly emblematic of toxic masculinity. And his haircut was inspired by real extremist movements around the world.”
With nine major action sequences, the film was “relentless to make”, he says. It was taxing on the actors, too, particularly Gosling. “I can’t imagine a more physically demanding role,” Joe adds. “Ryan is involved in every set piece of the movie, he had to learn all of the choreography, he’s jeopardising himself every day on the set, and just physically beating himself up.”
Now that the genre-hopping Russos have wrapped up an action thriller, they are preparing to direct and produce their first sci-fi film: an adaptation of Electric State, a graphic novel by Simon Stålenhag that will star Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown. Like The Gray Man, it is bound for Netflix.
And while many in Hollywood are enjoying the sight of Netflix falling back to earth, the Russos praise the streaming pioneer for bringing change to the industry. “We’ve worked with everyone in our 25-year career,” says Joe. “And Netflix is the least intrusive and most supportive place we’ve worked.”
As they discuss their future projects — which also include a push into video games following an investment from Tokyo-listed Nexon — there is no mention of future work with Marvel. When prompted, Anthony says there “might be another project in the future” but there is no rush.
“We love everybody at Marvel and we certainly had an amazing run with them,” he says. “But we were able to say a lot in that space at the time. We’re in a phase now where we’re focused on creating new stories.”
‘The Gray Man’ is in cinemas from July 15 and on Netflix from July 22
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