Directed by Robert Schwentke
Screenplay by Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber
Bruce Willis as Frank Moses
Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah
Morgan Freeman as Joe
Helen Mirren as Victoria
John Malkovich as Marvin
Julian McMahon as the Vice President Robert Stanton
Ernest Borgnine as Henry, The Records Keeper
Richard Dreyfuss as Alexander Dunning
Brian Cox as Ivan Simanov
Karl Urban as Cooper
Fun popcorn flick boasts brilliant cast,
unremarkable everything else.
In the opening scene of this weekend’s actioner Red, Bruce Willis awakens slowly in a monochromatic home where sunlight drifts in through the azure curtains onto the cerulean bedspread, exposing absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. He sits up, takes a pill, and descends the stairs, where everything appears completely normal. This in itself is, of course, out of the ordinary. Rare is the film in which Bruce Willis doesn’t enter the shot swinging some kind of weapon. Red revealed its basic plot in its trailers (and unfortunately most of its good lines), but for being a standard action movie about simplistic caricatures, it’s surprisingly fun to watch.
Frank Moses (Willis) is a retired CIA agent whose file the organization mysteriously marked RED (Retired, Extremely Dangerous). He’s trying his damndest to be normal, going so far as to examine and mimic neighbors’ Christmas decorations. He has an ongoing telephone courtship with a frustrated Kansas City woman, Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), who slaves away at the pension agency while dying for some excitement. Once the CIA classifies Frank as RED, William Cooper (Karl Urban), a young, ambitious up-and-comer operative, is tasked with offing him. Of course, it’s never as easy as it seems. After kidnapping Sarah to rescue her, Frank travels across the country picking up other CIA retirees along the way. Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), a slightly lecherous 80-year-old cancer patient, lives in Green Springs Rest Home. Paranoid conspiracy theorist Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) occupies an underground shelter in the Florida swamps. Former assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren) resides in quaint solitude on the Maryland coast. All of them, bored to death since their retirements, agree immediately to accompany Frank and Sarah on their newest mission: to discover who wants them dead.
The rest of the plot really isn’t important. What’s fun about Red is watching these seasoned actors interact. One imagines the egos zoomed into the stratosphere on set, but on film they genuinely seem to enjoy themselves. Malkovich is prone to playing weirdoes, so his wacked-out Marvin is not a leap from the norm. Willis does action best, so it’s no surprise to see him beat up a man thirty years younger, or step gracefully out of a moving car only to shower bullets into a vehicle behind him. Freeman’s career has spanned all genres, and he’s as good as always here; his trademark voice gets its due when he dons the disguise of a South African general. Dame Helen Mirren is most renowned for her roles as stuffy British matrons (and the Queen of England). In Red, she gets to show off how beautifully she’s aged and shoot big guns (life’s not fair for us mortals). It’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch her take after the bad guys with machine weaponry, which she does with utter grace as usual. Coming out of Mirren’s mouth, even the word “gooey” has class and dignity. Richard Dreyfuss joins the cast as a power-hungry, malicious yet pathetic arms dealer. Brian Cox, undoubtedly one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood (he did nine movies in 2009, seven in 2010), plays a Russian operative whose romantic past with Victoria is nothing short of cute.
Red is based on a DC Comics graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, and the movie respects its roots: it’s pure comic silliness. These characters are wholly caricatures; the action is nigh-on impossible; everything wraps up just a bit too neatly at the end. Audiences are endlessly fascinated by protagonists who lead double lives, and writers Jon and Erich Hoeber make the best of it. There’s perverse satisfaction in the smarmy ease with which these characters leap every obstacle that pops up, ditto in the way an agent can be discussing 2% milk with his wife even as he hangs a man. However, if what you seek is a simple, escapist action flick, you’d be right to seek out Red.
The movie’s cinematography and editing are nothing special. DP Florian Ballhaus favors the 360 degree tracking shot, and the camera regularly travels alongside projectiles (thanks, Wachowskis, for introducing bullet time to the world—now you hardly see an action movie without it). The plot of Red moves fairly smoothly, presenting sluggish exposition punctuated by enough action to keep it flowing. There’s some memorable imagery: Morgan Freeman leers at a nurse’s behind, allowing himself to be caught so he can drop her a wink; a dejected John Malkovich dangling a stuffed pig from its curly pink tail could go right alongside the Sad Keanu meme circulating on the internet.
Red is a solid popcorn flick. It’s fun, silly, and rather unremarkable. Viewers will flock to theaters based on its incredible cast, and most probably won’t be dissatisfied. The performances aren’t going to win these players any awards, but that’s okay: they don’t need them. One guesses it was a cakewalk for the veteran actors who make up its leading roster—and anyone who feels the need to complain that Mirren or Freeman is better than this, think about it: would you pass up the opportunity to play a badass retired CIA agent alongside some of the (other) greats of your generation? No, didn’t think so. It won’t make any great waves, nor is it one of the year’s best, even in the action category. Red proves to be a pleasant way to spend an evening as the leaves prepare to give up the ghost and the temperatures grow frigid: it’s pure, inane enjoyment.