Red (2010) ***
October 15, 2010
written by: Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (based on a comic book by: Warren Ellis & Cully Hamner)
produced by: Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Mark Vahradian
directed by: Robert Schwentke
rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action violence and brief strong language)
rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action violence and brief strong language)
U.S. release date: October, 15, 2010
There was a collective gasp behind me at the screening of “Red” as the animated DC logo scrolled back and forth and up and down, “A comic book movie?”could be heard by more than one groaning audience member. Yes, this is based on the darkly violent 2003-2004 three-issue limited series from Homage Comics, an imprint from Wildstorm (owned by DC Comics), yet it’s a far cry from the action comedy this movie is. Separate it from the source and it’s more comic than it is book. As far as adaptations go, this is paper-thin, which is fine since it takes a concept of the book and expands it with a load of actors that are fun to see having fun together.
Seeking out peace and quiet for the rest of his days, retired black ops CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is content living solo in Cleveland suburbia. He rips up his pension checks and claims them as lost in order to maintain a flirtatious phone relationship with Sarah (a fantastic Mary Louise-Parker), a bored call center representative at the agency. You get the feeling that not only does he amused her, but she probably appreciates the attention of someone she doesn’t have to meet face to face and in turn winds up sharing things with Frank she probably wouldn’t share with anyone else. Introverted Frank though, with his surly demeanor, probably wouldn’t have a chance meeting anyone in person.
That’s all about to change once Frank’s home is leveled when he is attacked by a hi-tech hit squad. He escapes unscathed but it turns out the CIA has him marked. Due to some lazy and incoherent screenwriting (more on that in a bit), we’re never really told why his former employers want Frank dead, all we now know is that he’s now RED, which stands for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”. To be fair, along the way we are told that this hunt has ties to some job in Guatemala back in the 80’s, where Frank and his old cronies did some work. It’s just one of many details that are glossed over by the star power here, and that’s fine once you resign yourself to that.
Warren Ellis ends the comic with Frank heading straight to Langely and taking anyone in his path out. Just flat-out. That’s what they trained him to do. That’s what he does. As previously stated, this movie doesn’t take such a tone and with this many cast members thrown into the mix, expansion was necessary. Normally, I wouldn’t go on about comparing film to book, but in this case, fans of the comic should know going in (clearly, they’d know from the trailer) that this is very different.
Once Frank learns who’s after him and what power they have, he tracks down Rachel in Kansas City, in order to protect her. For some reason, he believes “they” have listened to their phone interaction and wouldn’t think twice about taking her out as well. This is actually a good thing for the audience because Mary-Louis Parker’s comic timing in this is a delight. She really outshines anybody she is with throughout the entire movie. Her reaction to Frank breaking into her home and telling the classic, “We have to leave now!” line is just great. Willis and Parker make up in comic sparring what their characters like in believable chemistry.
It’s too bad the writers just ignore any natural characterization for the role of Sarah. This is an interesting character played by a fine actress rarely seen in a role like this, and she is entirely underwritten. She is duct taped, drugged, kidnapped, and even tries to escape, but then some time after New Orleans, it seems like she is suddenly resolved and just goes along with Frank. No more kicking and screaming, now she’s just goofy and damseling it in. Although, Parker is no less captivating from when we were first introduced to her, I didn’t appreciate the extreme character shift. It just didn’t feel right, but it says a lot about Parker that she totally owned such a role.
Then, the obvious “getting the band back together” takes place. In order to turn the target back on his pursuers, Frank looks up his old pals for support. First, there’s 80 year-old Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman, slightly under-utilized), a horny old goat, presumably wasting away in a New Orleans nursing home, who’s still got some connections. Paranoid nutjob, Marvin (a screwball John Malkovich) is sought out in Florida for his conspiracy-laden expertise. They make their way to New England to hook up with Victoria (the game Helen Mirren), the matriarch of the group, and get some assistance from her Russian suitor, Ivan (an incorrigible Brian Cox), along the way.
All of these characters portray the typical retiree restlessness, especially considering they were spent the majority of their lives as career special ops/wetworks assassins.
They’re more comfortable dying hard then faking a living, so it’s easy for them to follow along with Frank. It’s too bad this isn’t explored more, but that would’ve gotten in the way of this meet-cute road trip reunion. I’m not dissing it at all. It’s fun and charming to see all these actors get together and play such silly characters. Still, part of me knew that they could have gleaned more out of their roles than they were afforded.
Early on, we’re introduced to the meticulously by-the-book, Agent Cooper (an enjoyable Karl Urban), a man whose concentration is like a heat-seeking missile. He’s pulled from any other assignment by his boss (Rebecca Pigeon), to focus exclusively on bringing in or taking out Frank. Whatever comes first. Cooper soon learns that his lack of experience will hinder his chase when he violently goes toe-to-toe with Frank in a brutal smackdown inside Langley. You’ll wince for both Urban and Willis as their bodies are bloodied and smacked around the office space, while Parker’s Sarah patiently reads a magazine in a lobby, completely clueless. If you liked Urban as Bones in “Star Trek”, you’ll appreciate him here.
That kind of juxtaposed back-and-forth camerawork by director Robert Schwentke (“Flightplan” and “The Time Traveller’s Wife”) brings some nice comedic touches to the film. Other than that, it feels like Schwentke is trying to spin too many plates here. And that’s confounded by the fact that while the film feels too busy, it’s actually not really doing much of anything. Schwentke assembles all these great actors, including the Ernest Borgnine (at age 93, folks!) as a CIA records keeper and Richard Dreyfuss (kinda thankless in Dick Cheney mode, unfortunately) as some weapons big-wig, and leaves them at the mercy of a flimsy plot. I want to believe that given a leaner, more focused and concise script, Schwentke and his hyper-stylized approach, could have done more with such star wattage.
While the movie remains a fun romp due its cast, there’s no escaping the questionable talent of brothers Erich and Jon Hoeber. These are the screenwriters that botched Greg Rucka’s great indie graphic novel, Whiteout. I guess Summit Entertainment, like myself, didn’t bother seeing that dud. “Red” winds up being a good example of entertaining actors rising above solid storytelling. One problem could be that all of these actors would’ve had their own story told with these characters. Yet, we don’t get to spend nearly enough time as we’d like with them.
Regardless of its flaws, it’s still fun seeing actors like Parker and Urban get more screen time, while veterans run around with bombs strapped to their torso or dispense their foes with a uzi in an evening gown. I know action comedies aren’t known for their great characterization and smart scripts but there are a few out there. It would’ve been great if this was one of them. What could’ve easily been a special treat is instead just an amusing retreat.