Robert Schwentke's (of Lie to Me and The Time Traveler's Wife fame) latest movie, Red, is the retiree's Ocean's 11. Complete with satirical humor, a complex conspiracy, a life-threatening job that requires warehouses full of ammunition and explosives, a revolving door of bad guys and a series of cute little “ a-ha” moments, it also includes a charismatic team of anti-heros: the poised, proper Helen Mirren (who adds a layer of dry, if obvious, humor with her "classy assassin" style) and the Murdock-like John Malkovich, whose total rip-off of the A-Team nut job can be overlooked due to an inspired interpretation that resembles an homage, as well as excellent comedic timing. Besides, everybody appears to just be having fun here, with Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and Mary-Louise Parker proving no exception. Red's group of versatile superstars might have made it big in more dramatic roles, but they seem to find this no impediment to mastering impressive comedic styles.
The film revolves around Bruce Willis' character, Frank Moses, a retired CIA agent whose top- secret file has been stamped with the bolded initials R.E.D., meaning "Retired. Extremely Dangerous." Watch out for this explanation of the movie's title because it's the only one you'll get. For an action flick that is predictable and cliché in many ways, Red blessedly refuses to mindlessly belabor little details such as these, which both makes the title more compelling and indicates the director's awareness of an average audience's attention span.
If Moses is R.E.D. however, you'd never know it from first glance. He leads a quiet, solitary life in a suburban house that is too big for him. He only decorates for the holidays as an afterthought, in an attempt to appear more "normal," and he cooks neat, nutritious dinners for himself every night, which he quietly eats at his kitchen table. He keeps to himself, but finds that he wants the finer things he could never have while leading the life of a government spy -- like a girlfriend. As it is, his only acquaintance is Sarah Ross (Parker), a woman who lives half a continent away and works the phones where his pension check comes from. He regularly destroys the checks upon receiving them to give him an excuse to call up and talk to her.
If you are at all familiar with similar movies in the action/comedy genre that Willis has helped generate and sustain, it won't take long to figure out that all hell is about break loose, upsetting Moses' precariously-balanced sense of peace. It seems that he has failed to tie up loose ends and now someone is coming for him. After a hilarious, over-the-top action sequence that both showcases Moses' covert skills and satirizes the action genre as a whole, he takes off to find Sarah (whom he fears might be in danger because his phone was bugged), revisits some old friends and decides to reassemble the old "team" -- Joe Matheson (Freeman), Marvin Boggs (Malkovich) and the ageless, sultry Victoria (Mirren). He even ends up enlisting the help of one of his old Russian enemies, Ivan Simanov, played by the talented Brian Cox, who hasn't appeared in such an eccentric role since Running with Scissors. What ensues is a globetrotting, genre-bending adventure that perpetually keeps you entertained and laughing, sometimes to your own surprise.
The film has its drawbacks, of course. Though it boldly carves out a niche in this relatively new genre that weaves action into comedy, instead of the other way around, it succumbs to the primary pitfall that plagues this type of film -- excess. We know in the first 15 minutes that the movie sets out to critique action clichés and string different formulas together to highlight the omnipresence of formula in cinematic structures and plots, but the movie accomplishes nothing by reminding us of this too frequently. In doing so, it merely aligns itself with such predictable stories by creating its own hybrid of the same phenomenon, becoming derivative instead of perceptive. It attempts to cram in too much, and therefore ends up failing to fully develop any one idea. The twist at the end is neither surprising nor dissatisfying -- it simply comes too late, after you already thought everything was sufficiently wrapped up.
Luckily, none of this matters too much, because while Red clearly announces the type of movie it's supposed to be, it's not so locked into a specific framework that it forgets that its primary purpose is to entertain. The writing is happy to take a back seat to the acting and it seems like a fine compromise. Of course I could have dealt with fewer slapstick jokes (you can only get so many genuine laughs out of a bazooka), but I went to see the film for the same reason everyone will -- to watch these primarily "serious" legendary movie stars try their hand at a newer type of comedy. I wasn't surprised to find that they all earned gold stars, especially Malkovich and Willis, though we've already seen them have a go at quirkier roles. The real standout role belongs to Mirren, who manages to look right at home firing a machine gun while decked out in an elegant white evening gown and combat boots.
Starring: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Mary-Louise Parker
Director: Robert Schwentke
Runtime: 111 minutes
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
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