It’s hard to make a good action film. It’s even harder to make a good comedy. And it’s harder still to tell a story that will not only entertain audiences, but also keep them intrigued. Not only does Red successfully achieve all three, it also manages to house it within the context of a graphic novel, a notoriously fanboy-exclusive genre. Fanboys will certainly appreciate this film, but so, I believe, will general audiences; apart from being a fun, thrilling comedy caper, it’s also a thoroughly absorbing tale of conspiracy, friendship, loyalty, and yes, even romance. It displays a fair share of comic book violence, and yet it never becomes overpowering, so we can simultaneously revel in the stunts and explosions and pay attention to the plot. It’s nice to know that even comic adaptations can be made to appeal to everyone and not merely exist in a closed universe.
Adapted from the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, “Red” tells the story of four retired CIA agents who have been marked for death. Exactly who wants them dead and why, they don’t yet know. It all begins with a former black-ops agent named Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), who, despite his impeccable service record, has been labeled RED – Retired, Extremely Dangerous. Up until a team of assassins entered his home, he had been living the quite life in a secluded suburban area. He had started a phone relationship with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), who tries to manage his pension from a cubicle in Kansas City; it proved to be an unwise move, for now she’s also a target for assassination. Frank kidnaps her for her own good. She’s initially frightened by him, although it very quickly becomes apparent that she gets off by living dangerously. She’s also one of the few people outside of his inner circle that can handle his witty banter.
The death of a newspaper reporter leads to the discovery of a long hit list. This, in turn, leads to Frank reuniting with his old teammates: Intelligence specialist Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who languishes in a New Orleans retirement home; spy and camouflage expert Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), who lives in bomb shelter in Pensacola and, after years of undergoing Russian mind-control experiments, has every reason to be hopelessly paranoid; and Victoria (Helen Mirren), now a domestic Martha Stewart-type in Chesapeake, although she often yearns for her old days as a Wetwork special ops agent, where she was proficient with long range weapons. Together, they work towards uncovering a massive conspiracy, one that connects to an assignment they were a part of years earlier.
On their tails is CIA agent William Cooper (Karl Urban), who seems to understand his mission less and less the more he learns about Frank and his team. Far from a villainous cliché, he’s a family man who’s dedicated to his job yet does possess the ability to think rationally; he’s methodical and cunning, but he’s also capable of making mistakes, and the more he realizes what Frank is capable of, the less he’s inclined to listen to his superiors and carry out his mission. He also realizes, rather harshly, that both he and Frank have the wherewithal to fight for who they love.
The film deftly manages a balancing act between action violence and comedy, helped in no small part by actors who are quite funny. Malkovich is the obvious example, his character a wacky explosion of goofy dialogue and sheer mental instability. But Willis, Freeman, and Mirren shouldn’t be forgotten, here; they too reveal a refreshing sense of humor, mostly in relation to how their characters have adapted – or at the very least, have tried to adapt – to retired life. Credit also to Parker, whose surprisingly realistic dialogue is the perfect counterpart to Willis’, which is pleasantly silly. Ironically, it’s the mildly serious nature of the story that allows the leads to be so funny; had the film been a nonstop joke fest, had there been not a shred of heavy-handedness, the subtle quirkiness of the characters would not have registered. They simply would have disappeared into the background.
Fortunately, the filmmakers found a way to keep every aspect of the movie engaging. Nothing is left to the sidelines, not even the occasional stunt sequence, each lasting long enough to be entertaining but not going on so long that they become boring. Perhaps the best extra touch is a small but memorable guest appearance by Ernest Borgnine, who at age ninety-three looks, moves, and sounds like an actor twenty, nay, thirty years his junior. As the film’s tagline says, “Still got it.” Everyone involved with this film has got it. 2010 has seen the release of several comic book/graphic novel adaptations I enjoyed, including Iron Man 2, The Losers, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (I’m conveniently forgetting the deplorable Kick-Ass). Red is by far the best of them all. It’s funny, exciting, and absorbing – a thoroughly entertaining film.