Red. Was a better ensemble cast put together last year just for laughs? Oh sure, there were great ensemble movies last year, but most gave the feeling that they just wanted to get Oscar love. Some succeeded (The King’s Speech), some failed (Another Year). But I don’t remember a movie where a group of excellent actors got together just to have some fun. There was The Expendables, but no one really considers Dolph Lundgren and Jet Li great, right? They’re nowhere near the league of Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Jon Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine, and Brian Cox, who all lent their talent to Robert Schwentke’s mediocre action comedy and made it one of last year’s sleeper hits. And let’s have no doubts: Red is nothing but the triumph of its cast of veteran actors, who are so good they brought magnificence to a screenplay that had nothing. Logic gets shell-shocked amidst the explosions, cool one-liners define shallow personalities, and as for the plot holes, how can they exist if there isn’t a plot anyway?
The more I think about Red, and I’ve been thinking about it since around last Christmas, the more its flaws stand out like big pustules on a forehead and the less I care. This is not a movie to look for mistakes or to complain about plot holes. This is a movie of simple, guilty pleasures: Malkovich behaving like a paranoid conspiracy nut, Helen Mirren mowing bad guys down with a Gatling gun, etc. We know we want to watch this, right?
Based on a comic book by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer, Red stars Bruce Willis as Frank Moses, a retired CIA hitman targeted for assassination because some journalist started investigating an operation that happened decades ago and that no one remembers anymore. But Moses was part of that operation and someone wants to eliminate all the witnesses and people connected to it. This has been done to death. Let’s move on. A team of hitmen turns Moses’ house into a Swiss cheese, but he gets rid of them with the gracefulness that only Willis can muster when playing an action hero. Next he gets on the road with Sarah (Parker), a woman he meets on the phone when he calls the government pension processing centre. She’s the only person he can trust, they’re in love, etc., tick the romantic subplot box. What’s next on the list? Moses needs someone to help him, so he contacts the rest of his crew that was involved in that vague operation that happened a long time ago: the LSD-soaked paranoid Marvin (Maklovich), Joe (Freeman), living in a retirement home, and Victoria (Mirren), who still takes hit jobs because old habits die hard. Their plan: kill their way through a conspiracy that involves the US Vice-President and the military-industrial complex. It’s a big, nonsensical plot that, just for nostalgia’s sake, harkens back to simpler times when South America was teeming with CIA black ops and the Cold War still existed. A “realistic” thriller by Paul Grengrass this is not.
Red has absolutely nothing new in terms of ideas. It brings nothing new to the genre. Red has slick, self-aware action sequences. Characters perform humanly impossible feats like gracefully sliding out of a car in movement or hitting an incoming rocket with a revolver. The movie asks us to ignore this and we happily do because we don’t want to ruin the fun. But in the back of our heads we keep telling ourselves that we’ve seen this approach to action countless times in any movie starring Jason Statham.
What the movie really has in its favour is the superb cast, whose familiarity eliminates the need for character development. They have the personalities we expect from their type-cast screen personas. We all know Willis will play a super-duper, cool as ice tough guy with a heart of gold. Malkovich does his creepy-crazy thing he did so well in Con Air. Freeman, that serene narrator, is the voice of reason. And Mirren is the personification of upper-class grace with a gun and killing instincts. She’s a Bond girl if Bond girls lived to retirement age.
The actors just feed off each other, their chemistry is spotless. Even if Malkovich steals every scene he’s in with his paranoid antics, everyone works to complement someone else. What we get is a movie full of hilarious interrelationships which prodigiously mask the countless flaws of direction and lack of originality in the screenplay. Watch it, have fun with it and then don’t think about it ever again.
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenplay: Warren Ellis & Cully Hammer (comic book), Erich Hoeber & Jon Hoeber (screenplay)
Cast: Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Jon Malkovich, Mary Louise-Parker, Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine, Brian Cox
Runtime: 111 min