|Red | Directed by Robert Schwentke | Written by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner | with Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Karl Urban, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, and Ernest Borgnine | Summit Entertainment | 111 minutes|
If the late Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red
had been a comedy action thriller about retired CIA agents, it would probably be nothing like this adaptation of the DC graphic novel. We'll never know for sure, but I think even Krzysztof might have gotten a kick out of Robert Schwentke's good-natured, occasionally macabre, occasionally subversive entertainment. As an exercise for movie stars of a certain age, it sure outclasses TheExpendables
"Red," by the way, does not refer to the French tricolor, as in Kieslowski's trilogy — it's an acronym for "Retired: Extremely Dangerous." And it's stenciled prominently on the cover of the file of put-out-to-pasture covert operative legend Frank Moses (Bruce Willis, looking more like Mr. Clean in every film). Frank wakes up each morning in his empty suburban colonial house, idle and depressed, his only diversion the occasional phone conversation with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the lonely woman at the office who sends out his pension checks. He has a crush on her — probably because he knows he'll never meet her. But fate (or rather, screenwriting conventions) has something else in mind for the pair, as a "wet team" takes its best shot at Frank. Leaving the ruins of his life of quiet desperation, he hauls out the arsenal and heads for Kansas City to rescue Sarah. Phone records show she's the only person he calls; if they get to her, they can get to him.
So: meet cute. Next, Frank must round up some old friends, former operatives like himself who have also tried to make the adjustment to inaction. Octogenarian Joe (Morgan Freeman) is waiting out liver cancer in a rest home. Freaky paranoid Marvin (John Malkovich) is hiding out heavily armed in the Florida swamps, like a more amped-up version of Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory. Elegant ex-assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren) seeks amusement by cultivating roses, an Uzi propped next to her pruning shears.
It could all be one big cliché if not for the Oscar-rich cast. The image of Mirren, impeccable in a white evening gown and wielding an M-60 machine gun, alone elevates the proceedings. The actors bring finesse and nuance to their performances; Malkovich brings an unhinged goofiness that's hilarious and unsettling. Perhaps inspired by their performances, Schwentke — undistinguished in his previous film, The Time Traveler's Wife — springs his gags with an abrupt, exacting cut or a crisp, revelatory pan.
Together they've all turned out one of the most politically incorrect comedies of the year without anyone much noticing. In retrospect, it seems very strange to be laughing not only at an elaborate, Manchurian Candidate–style plot to assassinate a high-ranking official but also at a screaming terrorist wearing a suicide-bomber belt. Maybe that reflects the mood of an audience with its own "Red" acronym: Resentful and Extremely Desperate.