The Russo Brothers on the 70s Sizzle They Brought to ’21 Bridges’

We chat with the producers about the influences that sparked their new action crime flick.
Bridges Cop Shot

They don’t make ’em like they used to. How often has that thought crossed your mind while watching the latest weekend release? We’re all prisoners of the films that reared us. The movies we saw when we were 11, 12, or 13 were the first to make a significant impact because they were our first films. If you catch Con Air before Die Hard, good luck to the poor soul attempting to convince you that John McClane’s feet are sturdier than Cameron Poe’s mane.

You don’t have to look too deeply into the films of Anthony Russo and Joe Russo to recognize their passion for the stories that scorched their young brains. Besides, before you even start to squint, they’re eager to share the movies that fed their films and continue to push them as directors and producers. They’re movie maniacs, and that’s what movie maniacs do.

Their latest as producers, 21 Bridges, is a violent gun vs. gun thriller between Chadwick Boseman‘s killer cop and Stephan James‘ G.I. outlaw. Directed by Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful), the film relishes in its ’70s crime action movie influences and the blurring of good vs. evil morality. With a city under siege from all fronts and a ticking clock looming over everything, two men charge toward each other, and the audience struggles to pick a side.

I spoke to the Russo brothers over the phone last Sunday afternoon while they were taking a break from shooting Cherry to promote 21 Bridges. They were happy to discuss their love of ’70s era crime cinema and what’s lacking in the genre as it’s presented to modern audiences. Our conversation begins with The Taking of Pelham 123 and quickly veers into the dangers of nostalgia steering creation. For Joe and Anthony, a love of cinematic history is crucial, but even more critical is the drive to embrace new forms of art and new methods of delivery.

Here is our conversation in full:

When I spoke to Alex Belcher a couple of days ago about the score for the film, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Richard Brooks’ $ kept coming up in conversation. Are those the kinds of movies that you were looking to pay homage to with 21 Bridges?

Joe: Our experience growing up was as cinephiles, not as guys who were in the backyard with a camera making movies. Dialogue about movies was as important to us as actually watching them and making them. Our father was a huge genre movie buff, and we used to stay up and watch The Late Show with him as kids. And a lot of the movies that we saw — The French Connection, And Justice For All, Taking of Pelham 123 — those were all movies that had a profound emotional effect on us. It impacted the way that we look at storytelling. We love elevated genre because it’s a compulsively watchable style of filmmaking where you can package ideas and deliver them to the audience in a way that you can’t in other kinds of films.

21 Bridges came across our desk with this idea of Manhattan on lockdown because of a crime so egregious it required that lockdown. It felt like not only a throwback movie, and the kind of movie that we haven’t seen on screen in a while, but a film that we could put some interesting themes and social context into and make a very modern version of that kind of story.

So, what’s missing in contemporary thrillers that those ’70s crime films offered?

Joe: I think it’s the social context. All of those movies asked a lot of really important questions. We love films that entertain us and are beautifully made and have great acting and great scripts and are tightly edited and have incredible scores. But we love films where when you walk out of them, your brain is working, and you’re going to think about that film when you leave the theater. 21 Bridges asks a lot of interesting questions about corruption and injustice and emotion versus duty.

I look at Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I look at Captain America: Civil War. Steve Rogers is another guy who finds himself in a system that he doesn’t quite trust or believe in anymore, just like Chadwick Boseman’s Detective Davis. Is that something that you think applies now in 2019 in the same way that it applied at the end of the Vietnam era with those ’70s films?

Anthony: Didn’t it always? Yeah. This is one of the eternal themes, right? Especially in a country like America where on one level, you have a very successful system, a very successful government in terms of promoting human rights and individual freedoms, etc. But like anything, it’s flawed. I think we grew up with a heightened sense of seeing the flaws in the system and having a unique perspective on many of those flaws. I think that works its way into a lot of our storytelling — the idea that the individual is subject to a system that is sometimes imperfect, sometimes out and out corrupt. How does the hero negotiate those kinds of situations, whether that be in a fantasy film or a movie that’s more reality grounded?

Detective Davis is a bit of a complicated character. He has a reputation. He’s a killer. He’s a killer cop. Was there any hesitance with putting a character like that out there as your hero?

Anthony: We were certainly aware of how difficult that idea is, but with Joe and me, part of our recipe as creatives is to run at ideas that we find difficult and challenging. And we did that a lot in our Marvels, of course. We decided to kill half of all life. It’s like those kinds of ideas, which can seem very controversial or difficult, that sometimes have the greatest creative upside to them when you dedicate yourself to an exploration of their meaning and the resonance and their experience. So, yes, it’s certainly in this dimension that you’re bringing up with Detective Davis. That was complicated, and we knew it was difficult, but we also felt that there was something there to explore. And done the right way, you could find a very human and relatable story there. Sometimes those hardest things are your jumping-off point.

And so much of that character, why he works is because of what Chadwick Boseman brings to it. How did he end up here?

Anthony: We thought of Chadwick very early on for a lot of the reasons that you’re outlining right now. We knew what a complex role it was, and Chadwick is an immensely focused, immensely disciplined, and an immensely intelligent actor. But mostly what he is, if you look at the body of his work, and he’s played so many amazing roles, he has a real soulfulness in the characters that he portrays. He’s drawn to that kind of character. The idea that Detective Davis was someone who was wounded so deeply as a youngster losing his father to violence due to a criminal. The idea that he’s carrying that with him going forward and that wound is something that he’s struggling with throughout his entire life. There’s a sense of depth and soulfulness there that really makes us relate to that character and be empathetic to that character. We thought Chadwick was just really uniquely suited to bringing a character like that to life in a way that felt most relatable and most exciting and most fascinating.

We came to Chadwick very early on in the process, and he responded so well to the character that he wanted to actually produce the movie with us. From that point forward, we began a partnership with him that went far beyond simply his performance in the film and into the nature of the film itself.

Last night, I rewatched Taking of Pelham 123 with 21 Bridges in mind, and what I came away from the experience was how both films reveal their protagonists and antagonists to be incredibly likable. As with Robert Shaw in Pelham, Stephan James plays a character that’s compelling and absolutely relatable. How important is it for you to support the villain to match the hero in a situation like the one presented in 21 Bridges?

Anthony: Well, yeah, incredibly important! That Robert Shaw reference is one that Chad brought up, and it’s awesome.

Great performance. One of the best villain roles.

Joe: No one in this world is truly bad. I mean, I’m sure there are, but we tend to perceive the world as no one is truly good; no one is truly bad. We’re all a combination of both. Heroes are those who tend to lean more toward good, and villains are those that tend to lean toward bad. Everyone is flawed. I think part of what’s missing in the world today is empathy. People have complicated motivations with the things that they do, and not everything is black and white. So we’re more interested in portraying complex heroes and complex villains because we find it more challenging on a narrative level and more interesting and reflective of the world today. Also, this movie is really a movie about justice and how justice gets served and by whom. It doesn’t leave you with a simple answer at the end.

Thinking back to your love of that era of crime thrillers and wanting to continue to spread your enthusiasm for that era into your own filmmaking, how do you go about evoking the history of cinema while also adding your own flavor to it?

Anthony: That’s a good question. I think that this is a recipe we’ve used a lot. Frankly, our whole approach to our Marvel filmmaking comes from a very similar place in the sense that it’s based upon a passion for source material. Comics. It goes back to our childhood and how do we take that sort of past experience that we’ve had with this art and move it forward into a new expression. Basically, the way that we’ve done it in Marvel, and I think that the way we’re continuing to do it here with 21 Bridges, is specifically run at the most current issues, and the most current problems, we’re having today. To run at the very places that have the most modern context. Look, police corruption has been a massive issue for the past several years. It’s consumed a huge part of our national dialogue and our psyche, and so they are very relevant issues.

They are very difficult issues and unresolved issues that are in the air right now. We’re all still struggling with them in many different ways. Our approach with 21 Bridges was to simply run at that idea, to figure out what are the conflicts right now that police are facing and what does it mean to the rest of us that the police are in this kind of situation? Basically, these kinds of questions. I think that we just design the whole film from that central premise of making it as current as possible, and therefore all the historical influences just become background and sort of like layers and textures that feed into a very modern effort.

True, but when you look at something like The Winter Soldier or Civil War, it’s much easier to hide your influences because people may not be looking for Three Days of the Condor or Se7en or whatever. However, when you look at something like 21 Bridges, where it’s a little closer to the material that it’s influenced by, it’s easier to get lost in the nostalgia game. How do you traverse that terrain, how do you not fall into simple mimicry?

Anthony: What you’re describing right now is like the central premise of how we approach everything. We always want to give an audience a new experience when it comes to a story that they’ve never had before, and certainly part of the road to that is working in the most forward-thinking, innovative, stylistic modes and technological modes in order to achieve that. And Brian Kirk is certainly cut from the same cloth. Even though it leans on a legacy that may have led to this kind of movie, everybody in this project wanted to find a new expression for it, and one that is very much about today as opposed to the past.

Joe: Cinema is constantly evolving. The next generation is elbowing its way into the driver’s seat with a tidal wave of enthusiasm about how they prefer to digest narrative. The vibrancy of cinema is how current it is and how it crests that wave. So, it is critically important for us to tell stories that speak to the audiences that are consuming them.

How important is it for you to inspire modern filmmakers to look backward, when you do interviews like this and you talk about the films that influence you?

Joe: There’s great value obviously in looking back. You can learn from the past in ways that you cannot learn from the present, but at the same time, you have to jettison the past to discover new forms of storytelling, new ideas, new mediums. And we’ve said it before, we love cinema and adore it as much as anyone. We grew up in an art-house theater down the street from us. Spent hours and hours and hours of our youth in it. We also value finding new ways to tell stories. Two-dimensional narratives had an incredible run for a hundred years, but I don’t know that that will be the dominant form of storytelling 20 years from now. Technology evolves in a way that we’ve never seen and at a speed that we’ve never seen. It will bring new ways to convey emotion and narratives to audiences that were not expected.

21 Bridges opens in theaters everywhere this Friday, November 22nd.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)