- Launches on Netflix worldwide on July 22
- Directed by the Russo brothers
- Stars Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, and Ana de Armas among others
- Based on Mark Greaney's spy thriller novel series
- Film has been in development for 10 years
- Could be the first entry in a Gray Man film franchise
Relentless. It's a word that Joe and Anthony Russo, more affectionately known as the Russo brothers, keep coming back to when describing The Gray Man, the duo's latest big-budget action thriller.
It's an apt description, too. The Netflix movie, which is based on Mark Greaney's spy thriller novel series, is a frantic and adrenaline-fuelled caper that rarely pauses for breath. Some viewers may think that would make it difficult to follow The Gray Man's plot – although, as we explain in our spoiler-free review, the film's story is pretty derivative for an espionage-style flick.
Still, while its narrative may not be up to scratch, other elements of The Gray Man are. Its themes, as well as its likeable but complex characters, will offer food for thought and please audiences respectively, but its action sequences are what elevate it above your average spy film. Given that The Gray Man fits nine full-throttle, action-packed set-pieces into its two-hour runtime, then, "relentless" is the perfect label for it.
"They [the action sequences] are part of what attracted us to the project in the first place," co-writer, co-director and executive producer Joe Russo tells TechRadar. "It really is an exercise in relentlessness. We wanted to make a movie that makes you forget to eat your popcorn or check your mobile phone. The mission was to grab you from the very first frame and never let go."
Holding out for a hero
The Gray Man tells the tale of Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling), aka Sierra Six, a former penitentiary inmate-turned-operative who carries out covert missions for the CIA.
Ordinarily, Sierra Six – a product of the now-defunct Sierra program set up by former director Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) – doesn't question the mission's objective or his superiors. However, during one such operation in Bangkok, Six uncovers a dark agency secret, which has ties to the current (and ruthlessly ambitious) CIA chief Danny Carmichael (Former Bridgerton man Regé-Jean Page).
Refusing to hand over the sensitive data to his handlers, Six goes on the run from the very agency he's employed by. Furious, Carmichael and his second-in-command Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick) hire Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a sociopathic and malicious private sector hitman and ex-Sierra program recruit, to lead the manhunt for Six.
With few allies to turn to, Six enlists the aid of Fitzroy and fellow CIA gent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) to keep the compromising material out of the agency's hands. Cue a globetrotting, elaborate game of cat and mouse where everyone's loyalties and moral compasses are put to the test.
The Gray Man's positioning as an action-thriller is sure to drawn comparisons with one particularly iconic spy-based film franchise – James Bond. A complex hero who regularly questions the motives of the agency that employs him? Check. An antagonistic force who has a history with that government department and/or those who run it? You bet. Plenty of stunning and over-the-top action? Absolutely.
It's another juggernaut movie series – the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – that had just as big an impact on The Gray Man's development, though.
Having cut their teeth on hit comedy shows including Community and Arrested Development, the Russo brothers were introduced to a wider, global audience with 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was a Marvel movie with thematic parallels to James Bond and The Gray Man; a superhero flick built on real world political issues and the growing fear concerning surveillance states.
Released to universal acclaim, the success of Cap's second solo movie saw Marvel retain the services of Russos for another three MCU films – Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame. Each subsequent movie grew in size – as did the Russos' experience of helming blockbuster films. When it came to directing The Gray Man – a film they'd been wanting to make for eight years – then, the Russos knew how to craft a film with a budget that would most directors could only dream of.
"Infinity War, Endgame, and other Marvel films taught us a lot about scale," Jose Russo says. "It showed us what's required to pull off sequences of that scale and how to deal with ensemble casts."
How, though, does one go about finding a pleasing balance between what works in a novel and what best serves a film? After all, a book's story requires the reader to use their imagination to interpret what's written on the page. Meanwhile, movie adaptations of thrillers or spy novels need to up the action – bringing giant, explosive set-pieces to life – while trimming the unnecessary, expository plot beats from the book to make for a more enjoyable, riveting movie watching experience.
For the Russos, adapting a book for the silver screen isn't a complicated process. Much like their MCU filmmaking experiences helped them appreciate what it takes to make a blockbuster movie, their work on another book-to-film adaptation – Apple TV Plus' Cherry, starring current Spider-Man movie actor Tom Holland – guided their work on The Gray Man. That included taking some creative liberties with Greaney's works, such as the inclusion of De Armas' "strong female lead" in Dani Miranda, as well as new set-pieces that aren't present in Greaney's first novel.
"For us translating books to movies is a very fluid process," Anthony Russo reveals. "It's very easy for us to use what we love; that becomes the whole motivation for making a film that's based on a book. With The Gray Man, it was very easy – these inventive set pieces, the core concept of the lead character, the relentlessness of the gauntlet that he's forced to run – they were all simple things to carry over.
"And we don't feel bad when we have to change things for a movie. As a filmmaker, you're forced to change. You can't literally translate a novel – they serve two different purposes, and a book has a larger scope than a film can possibly contain. The first novel was written over 10 years ago and there are things happening in the world today politically that are different from back then. We like making movies that have a political dimension to them and reflect the tensions that we're experiencing as people – we like layering movies with that energy, which help contribute to the story we're telling."
Fast-paced filming and franchise futures
With nine grandiose set-pieces to fit into its two-hour runtime, The Gray Man's action is as frenetic as it gets. On average, Netflix's latest original film delivers an action sequence every 13 minutes – proof that the Russos aren't joking when they say The Gray Man is an unrelenting cinematic experience.
There's certainly a grandeur and intensity to those scenarios, too. Whether it's the fierce skirmish inside a flying military aircraft carrier, the thrilling close-quarters combat with the mercenaries that Hansen sends Six's way, or the lengthy, tension-filled tram sequence – a set-piece that saw Prague's Old Town shut down for 10 days – Six and company are put through the physical and emotional wringer.
Capturing the set-pieces' most hectic and fast-paced moments, then, required some ingenuity of the Russos' and cinematographer Stephen F Windon's part. The Gray Man is a film described as being perpetually in motion, after all, so sourcing the right equipment to film frenzied scenes at speed, such as the swooping, speedy long one-shots utilized in the opening Bangkok battle, was of paramount importance. Innovations in drone technology were particularly key in shooting The Gray Man's opening salvo; a sequence that introduces audiences to "the whole movie's kinetic energy", according to Joe Russo.
"We used a speed drone for numerous transition shots and action moments," Joe Russo elaborates. "It can travel up to 80 miles per hour and, as it's small, it can fly very close to the actors without hurting them. We used that to increase the pace of those shots to propel viewers and the story along at breakneck speed."
And what about the movie's Prague tram scene, which sees Sierra Six and Dani Miranda engage in a three-way fight with Hansen's mercenaries and the local police force across a plaza and various modes of transport?
"There are a number of camera rigs we used," Joe Russo adds. "One was a PoGo camera, which is attached to end of a long stick. It requires two operators – one to hold the stick, and the other operates a remote head and camera, which move much faster than a dolly or crane, so they can wrap around an actor or stunt performer.
"We used that a lot in the square of the Prague shootout to get around some of the mercenary squads, or move across them quickly, to portray that kinetic, dynamic feeling. So anything we could operate to reinforce that notion of pace was utilized."
With 11 books (and counting) in Greaney's Gray Man series, it's inevitable that the word "sequel" or "film franchise" will be bandied about. Netflix has had relative success with its other movie series but, considering those properties are largely based around the rom-com genre, the streaming giant is yet to find its own MCU-like film series – a franchise The Russos would "love" to return to – to build for years to come.
Netflix has other non-rom-com positioned movie series in the works – the Dwayne Johnson-starring Red Notice, for one – but The Gray Man has plenty more potential to become the streamer's defining film franchise. Its future, though, depends on how audiences react to the first of those possible entries. Critical reception has been mixed thus far but, as Red Notice showed, general cinephiles are more likely to enjoy a film of this calibre compared to those who cover the entertainment industry for a living.
For their part, the Russos are open to extending their stay in The Gray Man's universe. However, coupled with the multitude of other projects in the works at their AGBO production company – a live-action remake of Disney's Hercules, Extraction 2, and an adaptation of Tales from the Loop creator Simon Stålenhag's novel The Electric State to name three – the pair know that audience demand will dictate if any sequels will be greenlit.
"It's suited to longform storytelling, which we love," Joe Russo says. "We did television for years, plus the Marvel movies are longform entertainment. But it's up to audiences to tell us whether they want to see more. We'll see what the response is and make a decision on where to go from there."
It's difficult to say whether Netflix will greenlight a sequel or three. Sure, the streaming company is desperate for its own James Bond or MCU-like film franchise, but it's become notorious for its cancellation of fan favorite shows. Throw in its current subscriber and financial woes, too, and Netflix may actually be looking to rein in its spending and delay production on other big-budget movie projects.
For now, then, The Gray Man is another big swing on Netflix's part. It's a monetary and franchise gamble that could pay off if audiences react positively to it. Fail to do so, however, and the streamer may need to head back to the drawing board and rethink its movie output plans.
The Gray Man launches worldwide on Netflix on Friday, July 22.