Bruce Willis as Frank Moses
Morgan Freeman as Joe Matheson
John Malkovich as Marvin Boggs
Helen Mirren as Victoria
Karl Urban as William Cooper
Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah
Brian Cox as Ivan Simanov
Richard Dreyfuss as Alexander Dunning
Directed by Robert Schwentke
Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), formerly one of the top CIA operatives, now lives the lonely life of a pensioner, marked RED (Retired, Extremely Dangerous). When an attempt is made on his life, Moses teams with his old, retired friends in a cross-country mission to find and expose the men responsible.
The big comment that is going to be made for “RED” is that it’s a geriatric take on the ensemble action film that has been so prevalent this summer. That’s not an entirely inaccurate comparison, though it does the loose Warren Ellis adaptation a bit of a disservice because, frankly, “RED” blows “The Losers,” “The A-Team” and “The Expendables” out of the water.
An action comedy that keeps a foothold in both genres, “RED” is exciting enough that it stays consistently thrilling and funny enough that it maintains a smile for every one of its 105 minutes. When Bruce Willis steps flawlessly from a spinning car with his gun already drawn, “RED” gleefully walks a line down the middle of a hyper-reality that asks the viewer to forgo incredulity and just have a great time. “RED” is to the spy genre what “Wanted” was to the shoot ’em up, a dazzling bit of pop art that plays by its own rules.
The biggest boon for “RED” is the film’s wonder cast, somewhat reminiscent in tone to 1992’s “Sneakers.” Though Willis serves the necessary task of grounding a group of unlikely super spies, his role is somewhat thankless if only for the reason that, because he’s so at home in the action genre, everyone else gets to steal the show. Notably, John Malkovich is delightful as Marvin, an intensely paranoid and heavy-armed former operative who may have lost a bit of his sanity thanks to LSD trials in the 1970’s. Malkovich plays the character with exactly the right level of intensity and comic timing and, for a film that sets itself up in a bigger-than-life universe, makes full use of the expansive room he has in which to play.
Though Brian Cox, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Mirren are typically exemplary, “RED” never relies on the shock factor or the cheap joke of seeing each say or perform violent acts. Yes, there’s a visceral thrill from Dame Mirren blasting round after round out of a machine gun, but she (and the rest of the cast) treat the role with such respect that it’s a real treat to find such likeable, three-dimensional characters in an essentially cartoon world.
Two of the revelatory performances, though, belong to the younger cast members, Mary-Louise Parker and Karl Urban, both of whom more than hold their own against some cinematic greats. Parker’s Sarah has an extraordinary cuteness, which she focuses into a geek-girl portrayal that’s simply adorable. In the film, Willis’ character has developed a crush on her based entirely on phone calls and Parker very much makes Sarah someone you can buy falling for sight unseen.
Urban, meanwhile, plays William Cooper, a CIA Agent tasked with tracking down Moses. Effortlessly jumping from a super cool best-at-what-he-does persona to hitting emotional notes on the head, Urban’s may be the highlight performance of “RED.” Unlike the rest of the cast, he doesn’t have his own cinematic laurels to fall back on and still manages the right blend of parody and sincerity. There should be no doubt that Urban is ready for true leading man status.
A huge part of what makes “RED” so fun is the complete modesty of director Robert Schwentke, who, refreshingly, never resorts to filmic homage or action clichés. He seems to approach the film with nothing to prove and, at the risk of not leaving an obvious auteur mark, probably winds up with a better movie for it. There’s a charm to “RED’s” less-than-pristine framing and editing and, though the film could probably stand to lose a few of its somewhat silly animated transitions, the hand-crafted aspect feels right and clashes with perfect contrast the rest of the film’s calculated artifice.
Though “RED” is a tremendous departure from Warren Ellis’ original three-issue comic, it retains a surprising amount of the author’s personality and, hopefully, will lead the charge for more films based on his material. Violent, funny and unpredictable, “RED” may not be, frame-for-frame, the Ellis comic come to life, but it certainly bears his inventive sensibilities and, at the very least, will guarantee its future as a cult classic, if not something more on the scale of a modern “Ocean’s 11” or “Ghostbusters.”
The Bottom Line:
There’s an often-dreadful argument that tends to be made for separating “films” from “movies” and it usually ends with “turn off your brain and enjoy,” a critical dead-end if ever there was one. While “RED” may lose some viewers to its unique verisimilitude, it should serve as proof positive that a work can be smart and fun and still proudly a “movie.” In fact, “RED” may just be the most movie of the year.