As Hollywood continues its obsession with youth and unending (not to mention artificial) beauty, it’s nice to see the elder statesmen (and women) showing that they still very much matter in today’s show business climate, and they do. “Red,” adapted from the DC comic book series created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer, follows a group of retired CIA agents who reunite when they find themselves targeted for assassination. Looking to get to the truth of who wants them dead, they use the endless number of skills learned over the years which prove to have never worn out with age. It should also be noted that they do not take well to being labeled “old.” Watching actors Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren gleefully eradicate the perceptions people have of “old people,” and especially of people in the line of work they share.
Now the movie’s title “Red” refers to the stamp on the files of these specific retirees which stands for “retired, extremely dangerous.” You’d figure after all these years, the CIA would have a much better idea of taking care of the agents that served them, let alone the ones that go rogue. It’s bad enough that they train militias in other countries which historically ended up turning on us in the long run, but they can’t even control their own as well? Doesn’t really speak well of government agencies in general. Then again, who exactly does adjust well to retirement?
The main retired officer on display here is Frank Moses who is played by Bruce Willis, and we see him living a quiet life that is probably quieter than someone in his line of work can stand. Over the phone, he gets friendly with a customer service agent named Sarah (Mary Louise Parker, on a break from “Weeds”) who works at the office that mails him his pension checks. As an excuse to keep talking to her, Frank continually rips up each and every one of the checks he receives, and Sarah constantly looks forward to his voice coming through her phone even as her manager gives her dirty looks (micromanagement sucks!). Then one night, a team of assassins enters his home to take him out which they predictably fail at, and Frank ends up going on the run.
“Red” follows a similar path to “Knight and Day” which came out this past summer and starred Cameron Diaz as a young woman who inexplicably gets mixed up with a rogue special agent played by Tom Cruise, and of how she is forced to stay with him as both their lives are jeopardized by their seemingly accidental rendezvous. Bruce and Mary’s characters have that same kind of relationship here, but it’s slightly more complicated in that they already know each other, even if it’s from a distance. Willis cares deeply for her even when he is forced to tape her mouth shut on a long car ride as she starts yelling for help at the most inconvenient of moments. Yes, it is one of those unconventional relationships that doesn’t get off to a good start, but somehow develops into something more despite the crazy circumstances. Ah love is a wonderful and gentle little thing!
Now “Knight and Day” was fun, but “Red” proves to be even better as the action sequences feel much more potent, and the story is not quite as contrived. But like the Cruise/Diaz film, there’s no flashy split second editing, and the camera is not shaking all over the place which is a major plus these days. While “Red” at times feels a bit too underplayed for its own good, it also never bangs your head into submission with an overwhelming amount of violence or loud explosions. It actually takes the time to develop each character, and the writers do more than just giving us one-dimensional characters with an endless supply of groan inducing one-liners. Seriously, there is something about that which is truly refreshing in the world of movies today.
“Red” was directed by Robert Schwentke who previously helmed the Jodie Foster on a plane thriller, “Flightplan.” Just as with that one, Schwentke keeps the proceedings moving at a steady pace to where you never find the time to question the logic of all that’s going on, and a script like this usually has to be full of plot holes. But in the end, we’re just too absorbed in the lives of these characters as they battle with a system they were once part of, but which has since cut them loose without a care in the world.
Bruce Willis still has the goods (like we ever should doubt that these days) as your always dependable action hero, and he doesn’t just regurgitate his John McClane character let alone coast on his charisma like many in his position would. Movies like this are great for him because like the rest of the cast he can just let loose and have fun with his own image. Bruce scores some laughs here and there, but much of his success in this movie comes from the fact that he never acts like he is in on the joke. Perhaps another “Die Hard” movie isn’t such a bad idea in the future.
After all this time, Morgan Freeman still makes film acting look so darn effortless for him. When he doesn’t speak, his eyes let you in to what is really going on in his mind. Either that or he is skillfully letting an assassin see his eyes in order to make him foolishly think he will go down peacefully. But in classic Morgan Freeman action, you know he isn’t going down without a fight.
John Malkovich, who has been popping up in movies on a regular basis these days, appears to be having a sheer blast as Marvin Boggs, the craziest ex-agent of the bunch. Whether its Marvin or Mitch Leary from “In The Line Of Fire,” no one plays the infinitely paranoid CIA agent with such creative pizzazz as Malkovich. Few other actors could make you believe that a character could own a two story house on a beautiful spot by the river and only have it there as a decoy while living underground.
Don’t even bother asking how old Helen Mirren is because it is highly unlikely she looks it. As Victoria, she displays an ice cool efficiency with any gun you end up putting in her hands, and yet she can’t the powerful yearning in her beating heart that she has for a long lost love. Watching her kick ass while all sorts of characters see her as a grandma makes seeing “Red” all the more vital. From there, you know she will gleefully prove that she is a force to reckon with, as if anyone could have possibly forgot that. Damn this Dame is good!
But the one performance that’s so much fun to watch in “Red” is Mary Louise Parker’s as lowly cubicle slave Sarah Ross. Her facial expressions and reactions are so priceless that her work as an actress feels much more original than many others in her line of work, and she steals every single scene she is in. Throughout the past decade, Parker has proven to be one of the most justly acclaimed actresses on the stage, and her work on the Showtime network’s “Weeds” has been endlessly entertaining. Her quirkiness is so appealing to take in, and she never goes through the motions like you might expect other actors to. For Mary, it is never about playing a type, but inhabiting a character and her performance in “Red” is the latest example of that.
That’s the thing about “Red”; it could have just been an easy paycheck for the movie stars cast in it. Bruce, Morgan, John, and Mary among others could have just phoned in their performances, and we might have let them get away with that if the action on display was good enough. But each and every actor clearly found the material to be quite invigorating, and they are working with a capable director who focuses just as much on the story and characters as he does on the spectacle.
You also have an array of wonderful supporting performances from many actors who make the most of their time on screen. Brian Cox is utterly sublime as Ivan Simanov, a Russian secret agent who is tickled to death at the possibility of assassinating an American political figure as he is with the chance of rekindling a dormant romance with an old flame. Karl Urban, pitch perfect as Dr. McCoy from last year’s “Star Trek,” is terrific as the coldly ambitious yet somewhat enigmatic CIA Agent William Cooper. Rebecca Pidgeon, making a rare appearance outside of her husband David Mamet’s films, is superb as always in the role of Cooper’s handler, Cynthia Wilkes (cool name). You can always count on Rebecca to maintain an indelibly strong presence in anything she does, and I can’t remember if she ever played a character that comes across as easily intimidated. If she has, it has been ages or I haven’t seen it.
And fresh from his scene stealing cameo in “Piranha 3D” is Richard Dreyfuss who plays Alexander Dunning, the man who holds the key to why ex-CIA agents are being eliminated at an alarming rate. We don’t really see enough of Richard anymore it seems, but his cameos in these movies look like that will change, and that is no boating accident. Maybe it’s time to give him a lead role in a movie again, wouldn’t you say?
But don’t think that I would ever leave out good ole Ernest Borgnine who has a couple of scenes as Henry, the Records Keeper. Perhaps the true elder statesman of the entire cast of “Red,” it’s great to see him or Eli Wallach still acting far far far into their twilight years. Why should age slow them down anyway?
“Red” fits right in with all the other overblown and completely absurd action pictures that have come out in 2010 like “Knight and Day,” “The Expendables,” and “Salt.” It probably won’t stand up to logical scrutiny, but it’s fun to watch from start to finish. For some movies, that’s all you really need to ask for.
***½ out of ****