It’s been a long time since a single film has featured the acting talent assembled in RED. But if there’s one thing this halfhearted action-comedy proves, it’s this: even Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich (not to mention Mary-Louise Parker, Brian Cox and Ernest Borgnine) can’t enliven a story as deadly as that crafted by screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber, based on the Warren Ellis/Cully Hamner graphic novel.
Co-opting the age old, out of retirement for one last fling blueprint, the film follows retired CIA agent Frank Moses (Willis) as he and his former colleagues are forced back into the game when government spooks try to rub them out. Heavily armed and dangerous geriatrics Joe Matheson (Freeman), the wiry and paranoid Marvin Boggs (Malkovich) and the distinguished Victoria (Mirren) assist Frank in some serious butt kicking, supplemented by quirky quips and knowing, wizened back and forth banter.
Flashy and sleek, with the warm interiors of lush suburban residences contrasted by the pitch black town cars and sterile hallways of various government facilities, the movie looks the part. But the action scenes — save for an intimate, extended fight between Willis and baddie William Cooper (Karl Urban) — have a rote quality, fixed on wide shots of hails of gunfire and enormous explosions. Further, director Robert Schwentke infuses the proceedings with a winking, self-reflexive tone that mutes any possible emotional investment in the outcomes of those loosely strung together set pieces.
Yet some of the actors appear to be having nothing short of an infectiously grand old time. Malkovich — pursing his lips with suspicion, ranting about government surveillance and going the full-on wacky route — offers a memorable addition to his long litany of grand oddball parts. Parker adeptly blends a spirited sort of toughness with the vulnerability of the regular girl along for an unexpectedly wild ride. Urban makes a compelling family man villain, though the screenplay underplays Cooper’s more intriguing characteristics.
Willis, Freeman and Mirren sail through rather lazily, however, with the former offering but the slightest variation of his usual stoic hero and the latter Academy Award winning tandem playing one-dimensional versions of their characteristic types (he’s kindly with a mean side, she’s tough and sexy etc.).
Their individual presences attest to the larger failure of imagination that eats away at the core of RED. The movie relies too heavily on the star power assembled. With so many names sharing the same stretch of celluloid (add Richard Dreyfuss and Rebecca Pidgeon to the aforementioned ensemble) the movie never shoves aside the knowledge that you’re watching a Hollywood production with big-time performers. There’s no way to turn off your brain, to accept the individuals onscreen as individuals, not thinly disguised personifications of the actors behind them.
The overdose on stardom cancerously infects the rest of the production. The movie milks every bit of life out of the gang’s all here conceit, never ceasing to remind you that you’re watching old (in both senses of the word) friends on a mission. Virtually every shot appears to have been calibrated toward that fact in some fashion or other. In the RED universe, for example, nothing could be funnier or more provocative than an extended take of Helen Mirren deliriously firing a Gatling Gun.
The characters are never in any danger, and the threats they face seem derived less from any real world concerns (however opaquely evoked) than the convolutions of dry, stylized cinematic formulas. The dominant operating message: these people live quiet lives on Midwestern suburban streets and in retirement homes, but they can still beat the hell out of you.
If that notion strikes you as an inspired creative idea that you wouldn’t mind experiencing on repeat for 111 minutes, Schwentke has made the perfect film. If you expect more out of your movies than a bunch of big names, if you seek narratives (even in “escapist” entertainment) that dig beneath such superficialities as casting and big guns to arrive at some sort of impactful truth, resist the ads, forgo the temptations and wait for these actors’ contributions to works of value. You won’t be waiting long.
The Upside: John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker and Karl Urban are great. There are some inspired, funny moments.
The Downside: The film is basically Space Cowboys: The CIA. That’s not a compliment.
On the Side: The movie is Ernest Borgnine’s 195th credit according to IMDb.