Running time:111 min
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence and brief strong language.
Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Written by: Jon and Erich Hober Based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis & Cully Hammer
Starring: Bruce Willis, Mary Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Brian Cox, Karl Urban, Richard Dreyfuss
Red may be adapted from Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer’s energetic graphic novel, but what it really feels like is an extension of a scene in this past summer’s similar action entry, The Expendables. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you know the moment I mean—where Bruce meets Sly and Arnold in a church, offers them a job, and then jets off again. As it turns out, Robert Schwentke’s leisurely and good-natured Red is where he went next. Existing in an action universe that borders the same realm as Expendables—and The A Team, and The Losers, and Knight and Day—Schwentke’s film is a matinee diversion that brings an aging cast of warriors out of retirement for one last big hurrah. This time, we aren’t following a slick package of up-and-comers or a battalion of hardened, past-their-sell-by-date bodybuilders. Instead, Schwentke offers up a team of plucky and intelligent actors who make the experience of watching Red like taking a vacation from the tedium of the modern action movie.
Have you have been hammered into submission by the usual demonic combo of vfx and bone-crushing sound design, ready to duck for cover if you ever hear the mention of ‘kinetic filmmaking’ again? Red has been made for you, then. It’s light as air and almost inconsequential in terms of its narrative and character inspiration, but what it gets right is that it understands its audience. Expendables, Losers, and A-Team—all reasonably entertaining films in their own right—were built upon nostalgia, special effects or flashy editing. As a viewer, I’m starting to feel like the REDs (retired extremely dangerous) themselves, weary and wary of one more big battle. I’m not looking for new action beats, but a sense of immediacy and intrigue, an adventure with worthwhile characters for traveling companions. At the heart of Red, it’s about this group of actors and the charm and cheer they bring to a thin, routine story. With a laconic but reinvigorated Willis driving this thing, and Mirren, Malkovich, Freeman and Cox riding shotgun, it becomes a goofy good time. A throwback to old Hollywood matinee comedies that doted on their headliners.
Red opens with Willis as Frank, a retired operative trying to blend in with the banal milieu of Cleveland in the suburbs. When not trying to camoflauge his true identiy with nominal Christmas decorations, he finds himself calling up about his pension checks just to speak to the phone operator, Sarah (Mary Louise Parker). These early passages, that start to comically sketch a romance between mopey, laid-back Frank and bubbly Sarah, are amusingly interrupted by a squad of assassins that inexplicably want to wipe the old agent off the map. Frank, worried for Sarah’s safety, goes out to Kansas City and abducts her in hopes of protecting her. Abduct might be too strong a word since it’s clear that for Sarah this is an escapist fantasy come true and she isn’t exactly resisting. Her matter-of-fact wonder at the whole thing,a nd her growing admiration/adoration for Willis keeps the routine action scenes moving nimbly forward. Watching Willis bring Frank out of retirement with that knowing smirk and quizzical head tilt is nearly worth the price of admission alone. Twenty minutes in, we have long forgiven him for last February’s Cop Out.
The main draw of Red, though, isn’t some globe trotting duo adventure with Frank and Sarah, but the assemblied team of retired compatriots that Frank digs up to help him figure out who’s trying to kill them. Among them are the neurotic and paranoid Marvin (John Malkovich, ornery—and dying—Joe (Morgan Freeman), and the stylish, refined Victoria (Helen Mirren). Throw in an old adversary turned ally, the gruff Russian Ivan (Brian Cox) and you have a zany team of oldsters that can elevate the film’s tired view of them as senior citizens with guns. A welcome and spirited cameo by that old codger Ernest Borgnine—who looks like he might be older than all of them put together—seals the deal for the geriatric comedy.
None of it is terribly witty, and Schwentke is guilty of relying too much on the age joke and not enough on the temperments and sensibilities of his team . Still, its refreshing to see this particular group together and it works because they aren’t one note action stars, but the always interesting side players that usually invigorate big movies by being the colorful background. Malkovich and Mirren benefit most from the push to the foreground, and they make screwball action absolutely delightful. Late-in-the game scenes where Mirren takes Sarah under her wing in a twisted show of maternal affection are made better by Parker’s knack for incredulity and adaptation in the face of gunfire. And unlike the Expendables that crammed its spectacle and carnage into a contained bout in the last third, Red mixes the action into the story, and Schwentke’s understated approach always put emphasis on the actors, not fx. Fanboy churls might rip apart the scene where Willis steps froma twirling car to fire at Karl Urban’s pursuing agent, but its arrangement puts the focus on Bruce’s expression and badass verve, not the cgi that makes it possible.
Red isn’t a great movie, and Schwentke as a director has more of a decorator’s sensibilities than the rythms of a strong storyteller. Like his last venture, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Red looks and feels nice enough, but there is little to cement its events or emotions in the mind of the audience. It’s a sweet little daydream of an action movie that puts all of its energy and effort into small details of surprise invention. Watching Malkovitch walk around with a cartoon clock hardwired to explode strapped to his person is just the start of the insanity. Although this modest approach to the film’s graphic novel pedigree doesn’t accentuate it as an edgy blockbuster, it does allow the human comedy to spring to the fore. The result is a film that triggers our cinematic pleasure centers and delivers a few hours of blissful entertainment, blowing away like errant fall leaves the moment we leave the theater. Still, for popcorn moviemaking, Red finds the mark with ease.