Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban
(Summit Entertainment; US theatrical: 15 Oct 2010 (General release); UK theatrical: 15 Oct 2010 (General release); 2010)
It all boils down to how cool you think Dame Helen Mirren is holding a huge automatic weapon. Your enjoyment will be exponentially increased by how believable you find the budding romantic relationship between ex-CIA black-ops hero Bruce Willis and grousy mousy government worker Mary-Louise Parker. Do you like John Malkovich in serious, somber mode or crackbaby “let’s stain some furniture” style? Let’s put it this way - if you want to see old school slickness circa Morgan Freeman making movie mincemeat out of equally old hat performers like Richard Dreyfus and new comers ala Karl Urban, you’ll adore the oddly titled Red (we later learn this is an acronym for “retired, extremely dangerous”). If not, you should probably be looking for your Shoot ‘Em Up thrills elsewhere.
Willis is Frank Moses, an impossible to beat superspy, unceremoniously forced out of federal service. He now sits in his quiet suburban home and stews. He strikes up a semi-serious phone rapport with Parker’s dowdy Sarah, and it’s not long before his top secret past comes back to bite them both. Goons try to kill him, and when they discover his link to the little lady, she’s in danger too. Looking up old information expert Joe (Freeman, in a retirement home) and crazed conspiracy theorist and acid casualty Marvin (Malkovich), Frank determines that the agency - in the guise of Urban’s cold, calculated Cooper - is trying to ‘eliminate’ them for their part in a South American sting gone very, very bad. With the help of Mirren’s Victoria and a former Russian enemy/now ally (Brian Cox), they discover a link to a rich industrialist (Dreyfus), and the Vice President of the United States. For Moses, the answer is clear: assassinate the VP, clear their names, and end this nonsense once and for all.
Red takes its time getting started, using every bit of its first half hour establishing the main personality quirks and potential dangers. It does so via deft acting turns from the main cast, as well as a lock jaw determination from the good “bad” guys. While Parker seems out of place most of the time, given over to histrionics that do little except try your patience, everyone else here is marvelous. Once we discover the real reason for all the gunplay, why Frank is a target instead of a trusted former member of the bureau, we enjoy ourselves even more. By the time Malkovich, Mirren and Cox arrive to class things up, we are with Red 100% - or perhaps 89.5%. It’s taken a while, and we’ve had to tolerate director Robert Schwentke’s lack of action spectacle, but with enigmatic stars like these, it’s almost impossible not to have a good if slightly goofy time.
Though loosely based on a graphic novel series by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, Red doesn’t carry any of the genre baggage that one sense from a Losers or some superhero epic. Instead, it’s more like Wanted - a twisty little take on the action film that finds a new way of investing cynical audiences in the larger than life stunt sturm and drang. Using the old coot vs. fresh meat conceit and populating the former with a fabulous collection of aging award winners, the movie makes its point in solid interaction and some decent set pieces. Don’t be fooled however - Schwentke has none of Timur Bekmambetov’s visual bravado, and the narrative is really nothing more than Sneakers retrofitted into an even more paranoid US vs. itself ideal. Still, there’s some solid stuff here.
So where are the chinks in this otherwise steely entertainment armor? Well, for the most part, Parker stands out like a miscast sore thumb. While success on Showtime’s WEEDS may translate into name value, this is still the same actress who undermined such efforts as Bullets Over Broadway and Red Dragon. Along with equally unexceptional three named nonentity Penelope Anne Miller, her continuing celebrity remains a mystery, especially when placed alongside Willis, Malkovich, and Oscar holders like Mirren, Freeman, and Dreyfus. Similarly, some of the story is far too pat, prepared to show how badass our oldsters are while highlighting the incompetence of those several years their younger. We never fear for anyone’s life or legitimacy, even as the projectile holes are arguing otherwise.
But the biggest problem here is a sense of redundancy. For all its inherent fun, Red feels like a serious contender for “been there, definitely done that” consideration. Even the scene where Willis and Urban go mano-y-mano in the close quarters of an office feels left over from another film. Since we really don’t go into their backstory, since the whole issue of what really happened in South America is glossed over with insinuation instead of specifics, we are left with star power and events of the present. Both are enough to get us past the various pitfalls - but just barely. In fact, you often get the impression that Red should be better - bolder, more anarchic in its pyrotechnic bombast. If casting were excitement, this movie would be too awesome to bear. Instead, it’s more of a mild than wild ride.
Still, seeing Mirren lay waste to a bunch of black suited bumblers with a combination grace and mega-machine gunning may be enough to get you over the knotty narrative rest stops. Like a geriatric version of kids playing cops and robbers, nothing in Red feels real, just relatively entertaining. We don’t mind the lapses in logic or logistics since the pace keeps putting the heroics horse before the cart. In the end, there’s is little here we haven’t seen before (especially for those who’ve followed Mirren’s career prior to her becoming the fictional face of Elizabeth II) and yet, it’s all done with such polished professional panache that it wins us over. There is a real crowd-pleaser element to the experience, a sense that everyone involved knows exactly how to play to the cheap seats centered within the Cineplex. At one time or another, everyone here has had their critical acclaim. It’s now time to kick some butt, and for the most part, Red relishes the opportunity.