Red ** ½
Directed by: Robert Schwentke.
Written By: Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner.
Starring: Bruce Willis (Frank Moses), John Malkovich (Marvin Boggs), Mary-Louise Parker (Sarah Ross), Helen Mirren (Victoria), Morgan Freeman (Joe Matheson), Karl Urban (William Cooper), Brian Cox (Ivan Simanov), Richard Dreyfuss (Alexander Dunning), Rebecca Pidgeon (Cynthia Wilkes), Ernest Borgnine (Henry, The Records Keeper), Julian McMahon (Robert Stanton), James Remar (Gabriel Singer).
Red has a better cast than any movies of this ilk really deserves. This is a B-action movie, with an Oscar winning cast. While the cast keeps things interesting for a while – the first half of the movie is pretty solid entertainment – eventually its genre trappings take over, and we are left with one over the top action sequence after another to get through in the films second half. When everyone was shooting each other, or going through elaborate car chases, or suffering through long, expository monologues to explain the plot, I kept thinking that I wanted to go back to the films first half – that was more relaxed and allowed its top notch cast to play off of each other wonderfully.
The film has an interesting set-up. Frank (Bruce Willis) is a retired CIA agent living in Cleveland. He is bored with his new life, after spending year’s globe hoping for his government. He has no family, no real friends, and the only joy he gets is calling into the CIA pension office to flirt with Sarah (Mary Louise Parker). But then a group of highly trained assassins shows up at his house, and Frank has to go back into his old CIA operative mode. He travels to Kansas City to pick up Sarah, who he has never actually met before, because he rightly thinks she is also in danger. He then tracks down some former CIA friends – the paranoid Marvin (John Malkovich), the wily veteran Joe (Morgan Freeman) and eventually the sexy Victoria (Helen Mirren) to try and piece together who is after them and why. Meanwhile, the CIA has sent William Cooper (Karl Urban), the new Frank, to catch up with them.
But the plot of the movie is really just a Macguffin – it doesn’t really matter who is after them or why, it’s just an excuse to first bring together these old former spies, and then an excuse to string together one action sequence after another. The films first half was to me, much more entertaining the second. I love seeing Bruce Willis as the retired CIA agent in those opening scenes struggling through his life where his biggest concern is Christmas ornaments. He has an easy chemistry with Mary Louise Parker, who is as delightfully offbeat as ever (my wife says she always appears to be stoned, and that’s as good of description as I can come up with). For the second time in two weeks, John Malkovich gives a wonderfully, offbeat comedic performance, although his paranoid Marvin is miles away from his work in Secretariat. He delights in his own paranoia – and I loved the glee on his face when he announces its “time to break out the pig” – and then proceeds to carry around a comical stuffed pig around with him. Morgan Freeman however is pretty much wasted – he has a couple of nice moments, but he’s barely in the film. Helen Mirren proves yet again that she’s still one of the sexiest women in the world, despite her age. And it was fun to see Brian Cox as a KGB agent, who was once their enemy, but now looks back at those cold war days with nostalgia – and considers his former enemies now to be friends. Equally nice to see was Ernest Borgnine (who I had though had long ago died, considering he won an Oscar for playing middle aged schlub Marty back in 1955!) and Richard Dreyfuss who appears late in the game.
But once the movie introduces all of its characters, it doesn’t really have anything interesting to do with them, except make them shoot at each other, and the faceless people who are coming after them. The cast keeps things interesting, but once the setup is complete, it quickly becomes apparent that the filmmakers don’t plan to do anything all that interesting with the plot. They are going through the motions, hoping that because they have assembled a great cast, no one will notice that the film is rather cheesy – and once the action starts, kind of dull. Director Robert Schwentke does as much as I think can be expected of him, but I wish the screenplay in the second half had been more developed. Based on a very short, spare graphic novel (that none of the characters accept for Willis and Parker’s voice are even in) the screenplay runs out of steam long before the movie ends.
I will say that I enjoyed much of Red. It is an interesting diversion for the first hour, and even when the movie devolves into nothing but action, it is never really boring. But I expected more from a movie with this cast then they delivered. Red, as good as it is in parts, never really adds up to anything.