For the second time in two months, an action movie with an AARP-age cast is hitting the big screen. Back in August, Sylvester Stallone rolled out The Expendables, a loud and messy homage to the types of flicks that made him a star. Backed by a cast of where-are-they-now? relics, the movie played like a welfare-to-work project for ‘80s action stars.
The new movie, Red, has a higher pedigree with a multi-award-wining cast, some of whom aren’t known for gun-slinging. The actors clock in at a significantly older median age than The Expendables, but it also is a far better movie that could give Hollywood some clues about how to use the older talent it usually discounts.
Frank Moses (Bruce Willis, who is, of course, known for some gun-slinging) is a former government employee who is now leading an extraordinarily dull life in the suburbs—alone. His main source of entertainment seems to be calling the pension claims center to flirt with his favorite customer service rep, Sarah Ross (Mary Louise-Parker). This banter between two lonely people is quite touching and funny, and the opening minutes of Red have more in common with About Schmidt than Die Hard.
Then the bullets begin to fly. Turns out that Frank is a former spy whom the CIA has classified by the acronym RED, or “Retired and Extremely Dangerous.” Someone wants him dead. But when an elite hit squad comes to his sleepy neighborhood to take him out, Frank lives up to his designation by killing the entire team, despite the fact that they pump enough lead into his house to make it collapse, literally. Correctly fearing that his frequent calls to Sarah have put her in danger, Frank travels across the country to protect her. When she doesn’t believe him, he kidnaps her and they become fugitives together.
If that was all there was to Red, it would have been just another in the latest string of generic spy picks up clueless woman movies such as Killers and Knight and Day. Instead, Red, which is based on Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s graphic novel of the same name, has more interesting aspirations than to be the mindless romantic action comedy that its set-up suggests. Parker in particular plays her character with such wit and gentle cynicism that there is no way to mistake her for the stereotypical victim of those other films.
But the core of the film is Frank, who is desperately trying to figure out why someone wants him dead now. He’s not surprised someone wants to kill him; it’s just the timing that seems odd. Of all the ‘80s action heroes, Willis always seemed to suffer the most. Where Stallone and Schwarzenegger would walk through a hail of bullets without a scratch, Willis constantly found himself walking across broken glass or getting the crap beaten out of him. At the end of a Bruce Willis movie, he usually looks like he has suffered immensely.
That is why it is completely believable when Frank turns to his old CIA friends for assistance. With each addition to the team, Red gets more interesting. Stoic Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) is found in a nursing home. Certified nutcase Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) has been hiding in the Everglades waiting for his own hit squad to come after him. And primly British Victoria (Helen Mirren) spends her days gardening and cooking (though she does admit to taking the occasional “contract” on the side). All of them have also been retired, but none of them are ready to be put out to pasture.
Watching all of these seasoned actors take on an uncharacteristic genre should give Hollywood something to think about. The entertainment industry is often accused of ageism. There are no good parts for older actors, so the story goes. (That said, another take on it is that there are very few good parts for any actors—it is relatively rare for actors of any age to string together more than a few years of decent roles.)
Make no mistake about it. These actors have been around the block a few dozen times.
The five leads in this movie have acted in more than 250 movies. Throw in Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, and Ernest Borgnine in supporting roles and you’ve got appearances in more than 400 films. That’s a lot of experience. And it pays off in Red where all the characters feel complicated and self-aware, weary and wise, and much more interesting than their younger action movie counterparts.
Even when the plot gets creaky and the action seems repetitive, the sheer fun of watching these icons rip it up keeps the movie rolling. Mirren seems to be enjoying herself as she unloads round after round from various machine guns (and she’s not nearly so agonized or agonizing as in Shadowboxer). And Malkovich again gets to be flat-out funny. This combination of action and self-awareness, subtly intelligent and lively too, offers a lesson for mainstream filmmakers. Next time you’re looking to reboot a franchise, consider going older, not younger.