A few days ago I reviewed Martin McDonagh’s recent action-comedy Seven Psychopaths, and pointed out that although I thought it was enjoyable at times it often seemed to me to be way too smug and self-satisfied for its own good. The same can be said for Red, a similarly light but less-amusing 2010 caper directed by Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, The Time Traveller’s Wife), adapted from the 2003 graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer of the same name.
The title is derived from the status of former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis who, as the years pass by, increasingly resembles Sesame Street’s Sam The Eagle as carved into Mount Rushmore). Moses is ‘retired, extremely dangerous’, and although Willis is only 59 in real life, Red revolves around the joke of the character and other CIA retirees straining to pick up their guns and knives one more time after their lives are threatened by the very same government they once served. Unlike the duff one note gag of the turgid, revivalist Expendables series there is an added degree of amusement here derived from the fact that the rest of the cast – which includes Dame Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Brian Cox and Morgan Freeman – are all serious thesps who may have the odd duff thriller or two in their respective closets but rarely find themselves firing an Uzi or a sniper rifle.
It’s certainly not as ‘clever’ as Seven Psychopaths but, like that movie, your enjoyment of Red will probably be increased if you have a basic knowledge of action movies, although it’s certainly not essential. This isn’t a deconstruction of the genre, but it continues a recent trend of attempts to re-invigorate it with heavy-handed doses of irony, and as such the running gag does require a little bit of knowledge of the prior work or screen personas of some of the actors.
All told, I did have fun watching this cast, even if some of them are on autopilot. Willis doesn’t exactly pull up any trees, and plays a variation on the John McLane character that has served him handsomely (from a financial point of view, anyway) over the years: Frank Moses is a tight-lipped, macho, world-weary man of few words. (Well, I say ‘variation’ but actually it’s not a variation at all: it’s John McLane in all but name. So, I guess that does technically make it a variation, but they may as well have simply re-titled the character John MacLain, Johnny McLane, Mac Johnlane or something similar for the film adaptation.) It’s far more enjoyable watching Mirren – playing a retired spy named Victoria Winslow who picks off government spooks with her sniper rifle – and Malkovich, who clearly has a whale of a time playing paranoid, drug-ravaged special forces veteran Marvin Boggs. Both of them seem to revel in the freedom afforded by appearing in an action film, and I enjoyed their mugging, although Malkovich suffers a little from being in most of the movie; Mirren is only required to jump-start the flatlining third act. There are also minor-and-ever-so-slightly-irritating supporting roles for Freeman (as an ex-CIA man rescued from the boredom of life in a retirement home), Cox (a vodka-slurping former Russian secret agent) and Ernest Borgnine (a genial underground records clerk in his second-to-last film, which thankfully doesn’t tarnish the memory of him staring out to sea as part of McHale’s Navy or negotiating canyons alongside Stringfellow Hawke); they too enter into the spirit of things, at least.
Faring less well are the antagonists. Unfortunately Karl Urban gets little chance to display the charisma he has exhibited in the recent Star Trek movies as the bland, career-focused CIA agent on Moses’ tail, although he is certainly up to the action sequences and takes part in one gripping, bone-crunching scrap with Willis in the CIA headquarters at Langley. Richard Dreyfuss, though, is disappointingly blank as an arms dealer and presidential kingmaker, and at times it looks as if the veteran actor is wondering why he didn’t get one of the ‘fun’ roles.
The cast is rounded off by Mary-Louise Parker, an extremely capable actor who isn’t really stretching herself as pensions clerk Sarah Ross, also known as Frank’s Love Interest. Unfortunately she must make do with one of those irritating damsel-in-distress roles, the character conveniently forgetting about the fact she has been kidnapped and caught up in a violent CIA-related murder plot with alarming alacrity. Naturally she is captured and appears as a hostage in the denouement, thus fulfilling one of cinema’s most predictable character arcs.
Red successfully makes it clear that its origins lie within the comic world without necessarily being in thrall to the source material (indeed there were plenty of changes made for practical reasons, including extra characters, according to Warren Ellis). The fights, chases, shoot-outs and characters are larger-than-life but this is no highly-stylized adaptation, a la Sin City, and overall I liked the way Schwentke has let the style of the comic book (generally, not Red specifically) permeate the movie, even if his action scenes tend to be a little by-the-numbers. The cuts, sudden variations in camera distance from the action and snappy repartee are all harmonious with the original medium of the story, and although I haven’t read the graphic novel my guess is that a number of original storyboard ideas were used in the film. I could well be wrong, of course, and usually am.
The adaptation ditches the (apparently) darker tone of the graphic novel, as well as many of its more interesting themes and ideas, and while I’m not in a position to state a preference I will point out that I did actually enjoy the light, madcap feel of the movie during the first half hour (if I were a fan of the source material I doubt I’d be quite so generous.). That’s not really because of John and Erich Hoeber’s screenplay, which has a couple of good lines but is otherwise fairly threadbare, but primarily due to the wink-wink performances of the older cast members (although, admittedly, the ‘hey, it’s us guys together in an action film’ schtick is well and truly milked and I’m not sure I can stomach the further 90 minutes of it that makes up the sequel). I must once again single out Malkovich here, who has rarely munched on the scenery with such vigor and insatiable desire. It’s a feeding frenzy.
It’s this age-related running joke, and the reliance of actors sending up their screen personas, that forms the basis for my initial accusation of smugness. Perhaps ‘smugness’ is the wrong word; there’s a laziness about Red, an assumption that the premise is enough on its own to satisfy audiences, when that will never be the case. Unfortunately after a bright start I gradually tired of Red, as once the concept has been processed there’s not really all that much left to discuss: it’s just a formulaic action romp, but certainly not the worst I’ve seen, and at least it’s aware of its own silliness.
Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Written by: John Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, Warren Ellis
Starring: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Karl Urban
Running Time: 111 minutes