Dir: Robert Schwentke
Remember when your mom used to say that if you made weird faces one too many times your cute little mug would freeze and stay like that forever? Well, its true: in Red, Bruce Willis’ signature smirk – that half-smile, half-grimace that never fails to accompany his hardass-with-a-heart-of-gold routine – becomes a permanent feature, a look so inherent to his tough-guy repertoire that it never fully disappears. It’s distracting, frankly, and also a little sobering: it reminds us that, for all his bluster and badness, Willis has been doing this shtick for a long time. Tough guy or not, he’s finally getting -I’m going to come out and say it – old.
When it comes to most Hollywood blockbusters, the decision to cast an actor of Willis’ age as the romantic lead in a shoot ’em up CIA caper would be unlikely, and regrettable to boot. But Red is different. Refreshingly, the ensemble cast of Robert Schwentke’s new film succeeds in turning the dreaded age issue into a unique comic triumph. Of course, it must be said: nothing, not even the presence of luminaries like Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren, can transform Red from a fluffy action flick into a good film. What it does do though, is lend an unexpected and impressive panache to the otherwise routine action formula – ridiculous plot twists, token explosions, etc. – and subsequently set this movie just a wee bit apart from others of its ilk.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, Red stars Willis as Frank Moses, a former black-ops CIA agent trying, with evident discomfort, to live a normal retired life. He’s got a house in suburbia where he pretty much just works out, eats, sleeps, gets up way too early and makes repeated phone calls to Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a romance-novel devouring phone operator at the federal pension office. Obviously, these two need to spice up their routine; so it’s actually convenient when the CIA decides, for undisclosed reasons, to put out a hit on Moses. Their efforts are extravagant – high-tech explosives, impossible odds, mass property destruction – but in true action-hero fashion Moses walks away unscathed. Being the badass that he is, and back to his old ways again now that he’s on the defensive, he sets out to discover who’s behind the hit order and why. And so, with an at first reluctant but eventually smitten Sarah in tow, Moses thus rounds up his (literally) very old cronies — suave Joe (Morgan Freeman), crazy, paranoid Marvin (John Malkovich), Russian slickster Ivan (Brian Cox) and sexy as ever Victoria (Helen Mirren) – for a final showdown that pits the aging underdogs against cocky youngsters in a bid for justice and survival.
Take away the “old dudes (and dudette) kicking ass” factor and Red is little more than a derivative, formula-driven, effects-heavy, froth-topped action flick. The film’s younger actors, including Parker and Karl Urban as the CIA agent sent to find Moses, turn out fine but ultimately unremarkable performances; the plot is ludicrous; and of course the special effects and explosions are gratuitous in the extreme. No, Red relies almost completely upon the twinkling-eyed gravitas of actors like Freeman and Mirren (and having nabbed those two for the cast, who wouldn’t?), the sheer abandon with which Malkovich embodies his LSD-addled character, and – a surefire crowd-pleaser – the delight that senior audiences everywhere will no doubt experience watching young punks with iPhones and what Willis at one point refers to as “cute hair” get schooled by nursing home-bound, cancer-ridden retirees in slippers.
The thing is, you don’t need to be old to get a kick out of this idea. In fact, I defy anyone, no matter how critical they may be of the rest of this film, not to enjoy the ever-so-elegant Helen Mirren’s handling of a deadly 50-cal, the use of which against humans is tantamount to a war crime: it’s incredibly satisfying to watch, and so much more so than if the same scene had featured a sexy young Megan Fox-type in a low-cut top. For moments like this alone, Red is worth watching (and by that I mean renting) – provided you can stand 111 minutes’ worth of Willis’ wry perma-smirk, that is.
by Lauren Westerfield