November 2022

Red (2010)

redDIRECTOR: Robert Schwentke

CAST: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Mary-Louise Parker, Karl Urban, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, Rebecca Pidgeon, James Remar, Julian McMahon, Ernest Borgnine


Red is a prime example of how a high quality acting ensemble can elevate a movie from otherwise straight-to-DVD generic action-comedy fare into a moderately enjoyable romp.  It doesn’t do anything spectacular on either the action or comedy fronts, but the game cast makes it more fun than tedious to sit through.

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is a seemingly average Joe bored retiree whose only entertainment in life comes from his flirtatious phone relationship with a call center cubicle slave named Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), whom he’s never met.  The only difference is that Frank was once the CIA’s top assassin, and now for unknown reasons, somebody has decided they want him dead.  After singlehandedly taking down a heavily-armed hit squad that kicks his door down one otherwise uneventful evening, Frank heads to Kansas City to “rescue” Sarah (who is in danger due to the frequency of their phone conversations making the unknown villains think she knows something), which means breaking into her house and throwing her, bound and duck-taped, into the passenger seat.  On the run from dogged CIA agent Cooper (Karl Urban), Frank, with Sarah in tow, reunites with an ensemble of old friends (and foes), including Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who’s 80 years old and dying of liver cancer but can still shoot straight, paranoid lunatic Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), whose life embodies the mantra “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you”, former MI6 assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren), who’s more dangerous than she looks, and former Soviet operative Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox), with whom Victoria had a forbidden love affair.  Like a gang of quirkier Jason Bournes, they join forces to figure out who’s trying to kill them and why.

Red, loosely based off a DC Comics series, isn’t much of anything original.  It’s basically The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon replaced by ass-kicking senior citizens and an injection of a sense of humor.  A lot of the action is generic shootouts, with a few notably offbeat exceptions, such as John Malkovich having a Western-style duel with a woman holding a rocket launcher, an amusingly over-the-top knock-down drag-out mano-a-mano with Bruce Willis and Karl Urban beating the crap out of each other, and Helen Mirren handling various forms of heavy weaponry (one could argue that the very sight of Helen Mirren of all people firing a machine gun makes Red worth watching on its own).  Director Robert Schwentke directs with competence but not much flair.  There’s plenty of wisecracking scattered throughout, and the fact that Red never takes itself too seriously makes it easy to accept unlikelihoods like John Malkovich blowing up a rocket launcher in midair with a perfectly aimed bullet, or Morgan Freeman’s Joe being awfully spry for someone supposedly in the final stages of liver cancer.  The plot only exists in this kind of movie to string the action scenes together and give the characters a vehicle to run around having fun, but Red‘s plot gets a little more overcomplicated than necessary.

red2The freshest thing about Red is the offbeat casting.  While Bruce Willis is in well-charted territory, the likes of Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman shooting people and blowing stuff up sets this apart from action flicks starring, say, Jason Statham.  Willis is Willis; this is the kind of part he could play in his sleep, and out of the whole ensemble, he’s probably the most subdued and the closest to a straight man.  The supporting ensemble is certainly eclectic: Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox, Karl Urban, Richard Dreyfuss, Rebecca Pidgeon (Mrs. David Mamet), and a walk-on cameo from Ernest Borgnine.  While the stature of the performers Schwentke managed to assemble for such an otherwise generic action-comedy romp merits a second glance, there aren’t any Oscar nominations waiting in the wings.  Willis is the action hero, Freeman is the sage elder, and Malkovich is weird, nothing greatly beyond what we’ve seen them do elsewhere on their filmographies.  Freeman is his usual delightful self, but his screentime is sadly limited.  The real points for playing against type go to Helen Mirren, who doesn’t show up for a while but livens up the proceedings when she does (she’s certainly a long way from The Queen).  Another of Red‘s small pleasures is Brian Cox, tongue planted firmly in cheek, as the Russian Cold War veteran with whom Mirren’s Victoria enjoys a love-hate relationship (how he knows she loves him: she shot him in the chest instead of the head).  Karl Urban provides a worthy foe who might not be a complete villain, while the diverse likes of Richard Dreyfuss, Rebecca Pidgeon, James Remar, Julian McMahon, and Ernest Borgnine make walk-on appearances.

The primary enjoyment of Red comes from watching a cast of “respectable” thespians of ages beyond those of typical action heroes (sometimes well beyond) kicking ass and taking names and trading wisecracks.  Without them, Red would wallow in bland and generic mediocrity, and truthfully even with them, it only rises slightly above.  There’s nothing really special about this movie at all besides the chance to see Helen Mirren firing a machine gun, but on second thought, that is pretty special.  How much the above mental image appeals to you might suggest whether you should bother checking out Red.

* * 1/2