Directed by Robert Schwentke
Movie Review by James Berardinelli
Sometimes, casting makes a difference. Under the stewardship of the same director with the same screenplay, Red might be an enjoyable-but-forgettable late year action/comedy - the kind of thing one might bypass in the theater, recognizing that the multiplex is just a brief stop on the movie's road to DVD. However, with so many A-list actors fighting for space on the marquee, it's impossible to view Red so dismissively. It's a lot of fun and, because of the high quality of the cast, there's no need to feel guilty about praising such an inherently silly motion picture. Like The Expendables, this is fast-paced, high octane entertainment for the AARP crowd. It never takes itself too seriously, which is a good thing because it's a stretch to imagine some of these actors doing the stuff they're called upon to do. All that's missing is a cameo from Sean Connery.
Despite being in his mid-50s (when did he get that old?), Bruce Willis is in his element, playing an ex-CIA operative who knows how to out-think, out-shoot, and out-hit virtually any enemy. Having Willis in the lead for Red (actually an acronym that stands for "Retired - Extremely Dangerous") is unsurprising. But the rest of the cast, where there's not a usual suspect to be found, may raise the occasional eyebrow. "Eclectic" is one way to describe the supporting roster: Nancy Botwin from Weeds, Nelson Mandela, the guy in whose mind John Cusack mucked around, the Queen of England, the original Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecktor, Matt Hooper, Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, one of the original Dirty Dozen, and Mrs. David Mamet. Wow.
Viewed from a high level, there's nothing special about Red, which involves dirty government operatives, conspiracies, and more empty shell casings than one could uncover at a shooting range. It's basically 24 without Kiefer Sutherland and with a healthy sense of humor. Still, it's worth the price of admission to see Helen Mirren hoisting a big-ass gun. Red's conceit of experience trumping youth will play well to a portion of the demographic - those who applauded Clint Eastwood's geriatrics-in-space story, Space Cowboys. This time, instead of astronauts, it's spies. The level of suspension of disbelief isn't all that different.
When Red opens, Frank Morse (Willis) is phone-flirting with a woman he's never met by the name of Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker). He's in Cleveland, where the boredom of retirement is getting him down, and she's the claims officer in Kansas City who is handling problems he's having with his pension checks. Luckily for Frank, his life is about to get a lot more interesting. One night, after he has decorated the house for Christmas, a hit team sneaks inside under the cover of dark and discovers that retirement hasn't diminished Frank's wits or his aim. Soon, he's on the run, with his main pursuer being CIA super-agent William Cooper (Karl Urban), who's ruthless but unaware of Frank's reputation. After traveling to Kansas City to kidnap Sarah (who is in danger because of her association with Frank), he begins rounding up members of his old team: 80-year old Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who can still fire a gun despite having stage 4 liver cancer; lunatic Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), whose extreme paranoia is not without justification; KGB higher-up Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox), who appreciates the irony of cooperating with his former enemies; and former MI6 agent Victoria (Helen Mirren), whose retirement isn't as sedate as it initially appears. Their goal is simple: unmask the people trying to kill them. The means by which this can be accomplished is less clear, and is made considerably more difficult by the dogged pursuit of Cooper.
Red is based on the DC Comics graphic novels of the same name and has the kind of tongue-in-cheek tone one often associates with comic books. The action is in earnest, and there's a lot of it, but there's plenty of wisecracking in between (and occasionally during). The film requires a lighter, defter touch than director Robert Schwentke's previous effort, The Time Traveler's Wife, but he achieves it. Having such a skilled cast doesn't hurt. One thing that's refreshing about these actors - consummate professionals all - is that, despite the potential claim that they're "slumming," none of them phones it in. They invest themselves in the roles and we have no trouble accepting the unlikely sights of John Malkovich facing down a woman with a rocket launcher in a duel or Helen Mirren doing impolite things with a variety of firearms. There are no Oscar nominations waiting in the wings, but these performances are damn good.
I could mention a few similarities with Tom Cruise's Knight and Day, especially with respect to the relationship between Frank and Sarah, but, considering how poorly Knight and Day was received, perhaps it's best not to dwell on any passing likenesses. Summit Entertainment is relying on Red to be one of their late 2010 performers, and there's no reason it shouldn't meet expectations. It's fast moving, energetic, doesn't cheat adrenaline junkies by being too jokey, and offers a generally fun two hours. The strength of the cast and the ability of Schwentke to choreograph coherent action sequences are bonuses. It's hard to imagine Red not bringing some life to what has thus far been a listless autumn box office. If I wasn't a film critic, this is a movie I'd still want to see.
Starring: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren