Great cast drags the dim-bulb action flick above the curve—but just barely.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 12, 2010

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Last action heroes: John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Bruce Willis as retired CIA agents forced by circumstances into (all together now) one last adventure in Red.


You can’t go wrong with the sight of Dame Helen Mirren firing a .50-caliber machine gun, but Robert Schwentke’s Red comes awfully close.

A terrific concept that barely survives a botched execution, this overscaled adaptation of Warren Ellis’ DC comic stars Bruce Willis as a retired CIA agent having a terrible time adjusting to his new, quiet life in the suburbs. A former black-ops specialist who toppled governments in his day, Willis’ Frank Moses now finds himself flummoxed by the simple tasks of everyday life, like trying to figure out when he should put up Christmas decorations. Lonely Frank finds himself so smitten with a telephone operator at the government pension department (Mary-Louise Parker) that he rips up his monthly checks, making excuses to call her so they can discuss cheesy romance novels.

Red’s early scenes have a disarming lightness of touch, suggesting an armed-and-dangerous About Schmidt. Willis appears more alert than he’s been onscreen in years, and he has playful chemistry with Parker’s loopy cubicle drone. But then a SWAT team shows up one night and levels Frank’s suburban abode.

Red, we learn, is agency code for Retired: Extremely Dangerous. It seems there’s a nasty bit of unfinished business from a job gone wrong back in the ’80s; Frank’s old team has been marked for elimination by the new regime, so he’s got to hit the retirement homes and round up his old partners in skullduggery, staying one step ahead of these damn know-it-all kids who think they’re badass secret agents.

It’s an irresistible premise, particularly for fans of the “Get Off My Lawn” genre best epitomized by The Expendables or anything starring Clint Eastwood. Red fills out the ranks with a killer cast, perhaps the most overqualified we’ve ever seen in a movie so primarily concerned with blowing a lot of shit up. Morgan Freeman is all sly smiles as Willis’ former partner, ogling the nurses at his retirement home while grousing about the end-stage liver cancer that doesn’t seem to slow him down much, and John Malkovich brings the crazy as a paranoid casualty of the CIA’s LSD experiments. As far as over-the-top scenery-chewing Malkovich performances go, this one is better judged than say, Jonah Hex—he varies the kooky tics and even deadpans it now and again, always staying one degree shy of annoying.

Best in show are Helen Mirren and Brian Cox. She’s the most ruthless wet-work asset MI-6 ever trained, now trying to play Martha Stewart in a lavish McMansion and taking occasional freelance hit jobs to break up the monotony. He’s the Russian spy who never got over their secret Cold War affair, wandering through the movie with a giddy, love-struck grin, still convinced that when she shot him in the chest back in the day, it was a sign of affection—otherwise she would have aimed for his head, obviously.

So far, so great. But Red never bothers to come up with a story worthy of these characters. A boilerplate conspiracy theory serves to shuffle everybody from one exploding set piece to the next, and there’s a genuinely wretched performance by Richard Dreyfuss as a sniveling arms-manufacturer villain.

With the exception of Dreyfuss, the cast deftly downplays the silliness, yet Schwentke overindulges in the tale’s comic-book origins. The movie suffers from way too many cartoony CGI-enhanced shootouts, physics-defying camera swoops, and awful, fakey scene transitions that transform into postcards. You can actually watch Willis lose interest as the film wears on, abandoning his character’s quirks and settling back into his routine gun-toting stoicism.

It’s impossible not to enjoy watching this gang of old pros having a laugh in ridiculous genre territory, but the low-key character comedy ends up buried beneath all the pyrotechnics. If the filmmakers had more faith in their cast (and their audience, for that matter), Red could have been something very special indeed. 

Director: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Mary-Louise Parker
Running time: 111 minutes

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