Action movies have always been a young actor’s game. Once an actor hits their 50s it becomes a bit of a stretch to believe that they’re capable of the various feats performed in the standard action flick. There are of course a few key exceptions. Bruce Willis is one of them, still going strong in action films such as Live Free or Die Hard. For his latest action outing Willis brings along a whole cast of aging acting veterans to show the youth that you’re never too old to kick some very serious butt.
The plot of Red focuses on Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) who is a retired black ops CIA operative, and he’s very very bored. Retirement has forced him to leave behind a life of international intrigue and danger for a mundane life in suburbia. The highlight of his week is calling his Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker of TV’s Weeds) at the pension office. Frank pretends that his pension checks aren’t arriving as an excuse for chit-chat and the two have started to bond and flirt. Then out of nowhere a hit team storms Frank’s house intent on killing him. Even retired Frank still is far more skilled than any of the drones sent after him so he has little trouble escaping. Unfortunately until he can figure out who is out to kill him and why both he and Sarah (because his phone was bugged and the people out to kill him know he likes her) are in danger for their lives. Frank decides to dig up his old companions including elderly Joe (Morgan Freeman of The Dark Knight,) top assassin Victoria (The Queen‘s Helen Mirren) and a genuinely insane trigger man (John Malkovich of Burn After Reading.) Together these pensioners are more than a match for anything being thrown at them.
Red has a very specific vibe to it, and it’s a very fun one. The antics pretty much all hinge around people who are at an age where they should be playing shuffleboard being completely bad-ass. It’s a bit of a tricky premise to pull off well, but the ideal cast has been assembled to get the job done right. What’s more every single cast member seems to be reveling in being able to be action stars at their age (well for Willis this is old hat, but the rest seem practically giddy.) Mary-Louise Parker also adds to the sense of joy since her character of Sarah has always dreamed of high flying adventure. Given the chance to actually do it she dives in quite happily and it makes her a great match for the more seriously toned Frank. It’s nice that Sarah wasn’t cast as a twenty something. While Parker is younger than Willis it’s only by 9 years which is pretty meager by Hollywood standards, so they make a much more believable couple than in many action films.
Red has a very strong secondary cast, also made up mostly of older actors which just keeps adding to the flavor of the film. Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy) has a surprisingly suave turn as a Russian agent and former rival of Frank’s. Richard Dreyfuss also makes a fun appearance as a sleazy arms dealer and like everybody else in the film seems to be greatly enjoying himself. The legendary Ernest Borgnine also puts in a memorable cameo performance. But it’s not just the older folks doing all the heavy lifting. Carl Urban (Star Trek) plays the main assassin going after Frank and he manages to come across as tough and menacing without ever being the one dimensional bad guy that movies like this usually have. However, as great as everybody is, without question the entire movie is stolen by John Malkovich. Playing a man who was given daily LSD for eleven years, Malkovich is wonderfully whacked out. Actually in many ways he reels it in from some of his more ham fisted performances of late, but there’s never any doubt that he’s completely out of his mind. Whether it’s with a little sideways glance or clutching onto a stuffed pig his character of Marvin is just off, in the most wonderfully fun way.
The action scenes in Red are well handled, and in some instances fairly clever. A particular highlight is the explosive shootout amongst the yard of huge containers. That said, most of the action scenes are fairly straight forward. There may be one or two hits that really work well but there’s really nothing here that any action fan hasn’t seen many times over. However just the fact that it’s being done by these actors in and of itself elevates the entertainment value of the action. Particularly the animosity between these seasoned veterans and the young agents who’ve taken their places really helps give an added bit of flavor to everything.
There are a few sticking points in Red. Firstly the plot isn’t the cleverest thing in the world. The actual mystery of who is trying to have Frank and his friends killed and why is never all that engaging, and the answer isn’t all that interesting either. It’s the smaller moments where the film shines as opposed to the big picture. The film also is a bit rushed in some places, especially in the beginning. Frank is put on the run before the audience has really gotten enough of a sense of him to be invested in his well being. Thankfully once he’s paired with Sarah his softer side shows and his character works much better.
Overall Red is meant to be taken as fairly light-weight action fair with a few good laughs thrown in. On that level is succeeds admirably. The humor is easy going but manages to be quite clever at times. The action, while rarely stellar, is never boring or hard to follow. What really carries the film through though is just the sense of fun on the part of the people who are staring in it. There’s just a general vibe of joy that these actors give off in being able to fire huge guns and blow stuff up even through they’re twice the age of standard action hero. That fun is infectious and it’s what makes Red worth seeing.
Final Score: 4 out of 5