Need something done right? Get the old guys to do it. Of course, it helps if the old guys used to be cold-blooded Government killers. A quartet of mature actors highlight Robert Schwentke’s “Red”, based on a limited series comic book by Warren Ellis and artist Cully Hamner. The movie shares the central premise of the book (retired CIA killer becomes the target of his old company, now under new management), but adds three additional CIA retirees and fleshes out the CIA man tasked with putting them down. But whereas Ellis’ comic book was grim and nasty and ultimately pessimistic and depressing, “Red” veers off in the complete opposite direction, opting instead for action-packed, humorous, and wistfully substance-free fun and games. Mind you, not that those are bad things to have in a big-budget Hollywood action-comedy, but you should know what you’re getting into.
Bruce Willis is Frank Moses, a retired wetworks operative (re: CIA hitman) who is living a solitary existence in his old age, spending his time finding excuses to call the perky and pretty Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), who mans the Government pension hotline that sends Frank his checks. After a small army of killers try to take him out one night, Frank realizes that his past has come back to bite him in the ass. Not being one to sit idly by as high-tech assassins gun him down, Frank makes it his mission to uncover the cause of his sudden popularity, which means seeking help from his fellow retirees. The good-natured, happy-to-lucky Joe (Morgan Freeman), the paranoid Marvin (John Malkovich), and the classy British dame Victoria (Helen Mirren) are more than happy to lend a hand. Or a machinegun or two. Also along for the ride is Sarah, who Frank claims has to come with him or else she might be targeted. Then again, maybe that’s just a lame excuse to get her to tag along, being that he really, really likes her and all.
As with the original comic book, the order to take out Frank comes from on high, forcing our hero to work his way through the CIA all the way to the very top. Trying to stop him is company man William Cooper (Karl Urban), essentially a younger version of Frank Moses. And like Frank, Cooper is happy to do his job for his country, until he starts to realize he may be chasing the wrong “bad guys”. Of course, until he gets to that point, Cooper is running around with an endless army of CIA goons trying to kill Frank, Joe, Marvin, and Victoria. Joining in on the fun is Brian Cox, who is amusing throughout as the Russian equivalent of our retiree heroes. Ernest Borgnine has a brief but memorable cameo as the CIA’s records keeper, while Richard Dreyfuss, Julian McMahon, and Rebecca Pidgeon round out the cast as the film’s bureaucratic asshole bad guys faction.
It’s impossible to watch “Red” and realize just how different it is from Warren Ellis’ comic book of the same name. But once you accept the idea that Ellis’ story would never have gotten made as is as it made its way through the Hollywood studio system, then “Red” the movie is a lot easier to take in. It’s certainly a very amusing and entertaining time-waster, helped in no small part by winning performances from its main leads. Of the foursome, Willis is probably the only one who you expect to see running around New Orleans getting into shoot-outs with Karl Urban, but the very idea of setting up a high-caliber machinegun nest and letting Helen Mirren man it with a stone-cold expression is downright genius. I gotta admit, though, as much as Mirren makes an impression playing against type, John Malkovich as the LSD-overdosed, uber paranoid ex-spy steals the show from the first moment he shows up covered in camo and armed with a crossbow.
I’ll grant you that the script for “Red” is pretty shoddy at times, and the whole Government conspiracy that makes up the backbone of the plot is pretty, well, it’s downright generic and lazy work. Frankly, the whole movie could have come about because someone came up with the idea of handling Helen Mirren machineguns and watching the magic unfold onscreen. Of course, that wouldn’t really explain why Mirren’s Victoria doesn’t show up until almost halfway into the film. Director Robert Schwentke and his screenwriters did a smart thing to keep the film light and fun, especially in the first hour as Frank and Sarah evade capture and assassination attempts, their flight from death becoming a sort of warped first date. Mary-Louise Parker’s very expressive eyes and Bruce Willis’ taciturn, “been here, done that, don’t really care for the T-shirt” cool make the first hour a breezy ride, capped off with a wild and action-heavy second half.
Honestly, if you go into “Red” expecting some serious conspiracy thriller, it’s really not the movie’s fault that you’ll leave disappointed. If you’ve seen any of the film’s trailers, or even read anything about it prior to buying your ticket, you must have known that this is a flight of fancy not to be taken seriously on any level. For God’s sake, Helen friggin Mirren is running around with an MP5 taking on a small army of Secret Service agents in a hotel kitchen. What else do you need to know about “Red”?
Robert Schwentke (director) / Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (screenplay), Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner (comic book)
CAST: Bruce Willis … Frank Moses
Mary-Louise Parker … Sarah Ross
Karl Urban … William Cooper
Rebecca Pidgeon … Cynthia Wilkes
Morgan Freeman … Joe Matheson
Helen Mirren … Victoria
Brian Cox … Ivan Simanov
Ernest Borgnine … Henry, The Records Keeper
John Malkovich … Marvin Boggs
Julian McMahon … Robert Stanton