The last time the Russo brothers were in India, it was in 2019 to shoot portions of Extraction. Written by Joe Russo and produced by him and Anthony Russo, Extraction starred Chris Hemsworth as a mercenary hired by an Indian drug lord to rescue his abducted son from Dhaka.
While the siblings’ new project for Netflix has sequences in France and the Czech Republic, there’s an Indian connection too. In The Gray Man, the Tamil actor Dhanush plays a deadly assassin with a strict moral code.
The Gray Man is Dhanush’s second international production after The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, The Gray Man is led by Ryan Gosling as a Central Intelligence Agency operative on the run and Chris Evans as a mercenary in hot pursuit.
Dhanush was cast because of “his speed and his elegance” and his “movement on the screen, especially in the action scenes [which] is quite impressive to watch”, Joe Russo told Scroll.in.
“You have to convey to the audience, hey, this is the most well-trained assassin in the world who’s going to come after the Gray Man,” Russo added. “If the actor doesn’t possess that level of authenticity and skill, it’s not going to work. That’s really what we were most impressed about with him – he’s a great actor, he’s also a great physical actor. The way he can control his body is quite impressive.”
The brothers have been in Mumbai for the past few days, talking up their new movie and attending a host of events (including a dinner at Aamir Khan’s residence). Like Extraction, The Gray Man will be premiered on Netflix, on July 22.
The thriller has a diverse set of actors, including Ana De Armas as a CIA agent who assists Gosling’s character, Bridgerton break-out actor Regé-Jean Page, Hollywood veteran Billy Bob Thornton and Narcos star Wagner Moura in a cameo.
“Joe and I like telling stories for a global audience,” Anthony Russo said. “We think the world is continuing to move in that direction. We are experiencing narrative together as a shared experience globally, more so than we ever have. Having a diverse cast is part of how we connect with the world as a whole. We look for talent in every corner of the globe. It excites us to come to places we’re less familiar with and discover new creative energy there.”
The casting surprises include Ryan Gosling as an action hero and Chris Evans as a sadistic hitman who’s fond of torture and wisecracks.
“You have to find somebody who’s at the right point of their career to agree to do something like that,” Joe Russo observed. “Chris Evans is very comfortably placed in his career. He wants to take risks ow. Ryan Gosling too, he wanted to do a big commercial movie. He’s doing the Barbie movie, The Fall Guy. He’s transitioning into a different phase of his career. He has kids and he wants to make movies they can see and engage with. So really, you have to be at the right inflection point for an actor to take on a certain role.”
Anthony Russo, 52, and Joe Russo, 51, made their debut with the unreleased film Pieces in 1997. After directing the comedies Welcome to Collingwood (2002) and You, Me and Dupree (2006) and television shows that include Arrested Development and Community, they entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). They directed the Captain America sequel Civil War (2016) as well as the giga-sized blockbusters Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Among The Gray Man’s highlights is an extensive action sequence set in Prague, which showcases the duo’s talent for choreographing plausible mayhem.
“It took us months to prep that,” Joe Russo recalled. “There were three different crews, thousands of people involved. It’s intense. Making an action movie is very physical. It’s demanding on us and the cast and the crew. That sequence in particular was all shot at the same time for a six-week period.”
The rapport between the brothers ensures a smooth shooting experience, they said. However, they don’t complete each other’s sentences, as the Coen brothers are rumoured to.
Joe Russo: “We trade off. I’ll talk, he’ll talk. I’ll sleep while he’s speaking.”
Anthony Russo: “We are both the good cop and the bad cop. We switch.”
Joe Russo: “You can’t let people get complacent. It’s whoever in the mood that day. We are pragmatists, and the way we work is very efficient. We’ve also done this for so long that we can watch a take together and know something’s not working. One of us will go, you wanna deal with it or you want me to deal with it? Whoever has the energy in the moment. We’re grateful for it because it allows us to conserve our energies to tell more stories and make more films.”
The Gray Man arrives on Netflix at a time when the streaming platform is in its most challenging phase. Since the beginning of 2022, Netflix has reported a loss of 11,70,000 subscribers around the world, according to a Variety report. (This figure includes 700,000 customers in Russia after the country invaded Ukraine). Alongside a wobbly subscriber base, Netflix is also facing massive cost over-runs (which have resulted in lay-offs).
The report added, “…Netflix lost 1.3 million subscribers in the U.S. and Canada, stayed flat in Latin America, lost about 770,000 in Europe and West Asia and grew by about 1 million subscribers in the Asia Pacific region.” This makes it doubly important for films such as The Gray Man, with its internationally recognisable cast and easily consumable plot, to succeed around the world.
The debate about the perceived superiority of the big-screen experience over streaming will soon be irrelevant, the siblings predicted.
“All our films are made the same,” Anthony Russo said. “You’re just trying to tell the best story that you can. We’re trained to deliver an intense epic experience through the film, no matter how you’re accessing it. Things have become more fluid, and they will continue to be more fluid as we move forward.”
Joe Russo added: “For a decade now, everyone’s been watching films on their phones and TV. I have four children who’re completely agnostic about how they consume stories. I’ve learnt to not become precious about it anymore. We don’t want to create a barrier that stops you from accessing it [a film] based on some faux belief that this [the theatrical experience] is more important.”