A film review by Craig J. Koban October 26, 2010

RED jj

2010, PG-13, 110 mins.


Bruce Willis: Frank / Morgan Freeman: Joe /John Malkovich: Marvin / Helen Mirren: Victoria / Mary-Louise Parker: Sarah / Karl Urban: Cooper / Brian Cox: Ivan

Directed by Robert Schwentke / Written by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner

The PG-13 rated RED – based on the very R rated and grisly DC graphic novel of the same name by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer – is a film about old geezers kicking ass and taking names.  The old codgers in question are retired CIA veterans that are very impolitely forced out of a cozy retirement by forces beyond their control.  

Watching it I was reminded of a few other films – GRAND TORINO and SPACE COWBOYS, for instance - that forced you to suspend your disbelief about elderly actors that should be bound for care homes doing unthinkable things that are usually reserved for the young.  RED certainly is not as solemn as GRAND TORINO and is far sillier than SPACE COWBOYS, but ultimately the modest pleasure of seeing RED is its Oscar caliber cast yucking it up – and, yup, kicking ass – amidst a hole-riddled, second tier plot worthy of a direct-to-video feature. 

RED is actually an acronym – “Retired: Extremely Dangerous” – which is derived from the stamp on ex-CIA Agent Frank Moses’ (Bruce Willis) file, as revealed in a sly scene featuring a very, very old CIA records keeper played by Ernest Borgnine, 93-years-old, and still alive and working with the youngsters around him (and by “youngsters" I mean actors ranging from their 50’s to their 60’s).  The film opens with a scene that reveals the painful redundancy of Moses' retired life: he tries to sleep in, but can’t, wakes up and goes about his arduously boring and trivial morning ritual until he calls Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a customer service representative that works at Frank’s pension office.  Frank likes this girl, so much so that he goes out of his way to rip up his pension check just so that he can call her to request another one…and for an opportunity just to verbally flirt.  She reciprocates as well. 

Frank’s quiet and painfully dull Cleveland-bound retirement is disrupted one day after he spends some time putting up Christmas decorations.  A secret hit squad infiltrates his home in the middle of the night, but the nibble and cagey Frank quickly disposes them all in manners that only John McClane would dream of.  Fearing that his life is in eminent danger – and that his phone conversations with Sarah have been bugged and monitored - Frank immediately decides to go to Kansas to seek out Sarah and protect her. 

When Frank shows up unannounced at her door she is not immediately thrilled, which requires him to essentially kidnap her in order to bring her along to keep her safe.  Within a startlingly short time, Sarah becomes a rather willing – and creepily enthusiastic – partner in Frank’s mission to discover the identities of those responsible for the attempt on his life.  While on the run Frank begins recruiting members of his old team, all of whom have long since retired: there is 80-year-old Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who still has “got it” even with stage-4 liver cancer; a fanatical and paranoid lunatic named Marvin Boggs (a deliciously funny and crazed John Malkovich), who is deeply suspicious of…well…just about everything; a KGB agent once loyal to mother Russia, but has long since turned a new Capitalistic leaf, Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox); and former MI:6 agent Victoria (Helen Mirren, yes, THE QUEEN packing heat) that is well mannered and polite on the outside, but underneath that urbane façade lurks a seriously dangerous woman when any gun – large or small – is placed in her possession.   

Their collective goal is to find out just what in the hell is going on and who is behind it all, which initially leads them all to Frank’s main pursuer, a young, ambitious, and determined CIA operative named William Cooper (“Bones" McCoy himself, Karl Urban, having considerable fun here) who steadfastly hunts down Frank without realizing in the slightest that he's not a former analyst that he’s been led on to believe.  Of course, Cooper discovers just how deadly Frank is when he opens up his secret file with the acronym RED stamped on the cover.  This does not stymie Cooper in any way, as he continues to stalk Frank and company.  Meanwhile, Frank and his companions continue to seek out their adversaries, which takes them to a very unexpected person that is far up on the political ladder...like...really far up. 

It is the cast and their camaraderie that essentially makes RED a considerable amount of breezy, lightweight fun.  Standouts include Parker, who is so limitlessly bubbly and sort of twistedly charming as Frank's unlikely accomplice.  Malkovich is an infectiously likeable lunatic that perhaps went through far too many LSD induced experiments while working for the government (he seems like a rejected character from THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS).  Watching a completely unhinged Malkovich is no stretch for the actor, but it's insatiably entertaining nonetheless.  Brian Cox is uber cool and dignified as his former Russian agent that enjoys working with his former enemies, and how incongruous – but indescribably fulfilling and sexy - is it to same Helen Mirren paint the screen red with sniper rifles and large scale machine guns?  Richard Dreyfus also shows up for a juicy cameo mid-way through.  Regrettably, the only low performance points are Willis, who essentially smirks and sleepwalks through most of his performance (and for only being in his early 50’s, he seems a tad too young to be a part of this grumpy old men squad) and Freeman, who is delegated to a mournfully limited role whose fate you can see from a mile away. 

RED does have a substantial amount of giddy pleasure in presenting some absurdly choreographed action sequences right out of the finest movies in the “Cinema of Incredulity” genre (the genre where we are asked to take in all of the logic defying and improbable sights and engage in them excitedly without ever questioning their cadence).  Take, for instance, a wickedly funny and macabre scene when Marvin is threatened by a grenade, but in response he takes his machine gun and baseball bats it back to his unsuspecting target, who is very quickly reduced to dozens of pieces.  Marvin also occupies a riotous sequence when he has a standoff versus a pursuer sporting a rocket launcher where he proves why it’s okay to bring a handgun to a rocket launcher fight.  I also greatly enjoyed a gag featuring Frank popping out of the driver’s seat of a peeling police car so that he can stand up and fire on his prey...while the car careens around behind him.   People questioning and nitpicking the reality of these moments need to give their head a shake:  this is an over-the-top film with over-the-top set pieces; reality is not its chief modus operandi. 

When I left RED I found myself liking it for what it was: an amusing, action packed, nimble footed, and guilty pleasured action comedy with a cast that I really got behind.  Yet, days after seeing it I found myself disregarding it perhaps a bit more: The plot – which bares a remarkable resemblance to KNIGHT AND DAY, also involving a rogue governmental agent kidnapping a woman that becomes his lover on the run – is fairly pedestrian and filled with some naggingly implausible elements (like how Parker’s modest and good natured telephone operator would fall so head over heels for her kidnapper so quickly...just because she likes and craves for adventure?).  Then there is the notion that Frank and his team manage to travel rather freely from city to city without being detected by the manpower and full technological arsenal of the CIA.  Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh.   

Then there is the film’s somewhat unnecessary running time, which at nearly two hours begins to pull the narrative thrust down, especially when it reaches a climax that is anything but…uh…meh.  The film finds itself spinning its wheels while trying to decide precisely where to go instead of just getting us there.  Ultimately, RED is not a dreadful fall movie season offering; it’s eminently enjoyable for its B-grade eccentricities, and the cast alone is worthy and able minded.  Yet, the film is, in due course, both briskly entertaining and disposable and easily unmemorable at the same time.  Worthy of a cheap rental?  Sure.  Worthy of an expensive night out at the movies?  Not so much.  

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