“RED” is not the sort of film that will redefine a genre or shock anyone who goes to see it because of some radical reinvention of narrative. It is fairly familiar stuff overall, based on a graphic novel by Warren Ellis, a low-key mix of comedy and action that works largely because of a great cast that approaches the material with enthusiasm and charm. It’s uneven, but in the best moments in the film, “RED” is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve seen this year, and I would absolutely recommend it.
There are a few familiar tropes sort of mashed together here. There’s the main storyline, which deals with Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a retired CIA operative who has a crush on the woman he deals with over the phone regarding his retirement checks each month. That woman, Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), has developed a crush on Frank as well, and the start of the film really is just a growing flirtation between the two of them, and it’s smartly written and smartly played. Mary-Louise Parker has never really been one to just play “the girl,” and she brings some interesting colors to play in the way she portrays Sarah. She’s a little cynical, a little hopeful, at an age where she knows it’s probably too much to dream of being swept away by love but still addicted to the notion of it. She reads crappy romance novels precisely because they are crappy, and she relishes how terrible they are. Frank is smitten by the quirks and rough edges in this woman, and director Robert Schwentke and screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber are patient, letting the chemistry between the two characters gel before they start ladling on the complications.
Complications like, say, a team of assassins who break into Frank’s house in the middle of the night to try and kill him.
That’s the other main cliche that “RED” works a riff on, the story of the retired secret agent who has to use his skills to fight off a threat that draws him back into the life he left behind. Frank goes on the run, and very quickly realizes that all of his calls to Sarah have made her a target. He picks her up, and the two of them go on the run while Frank tries to reassemble his old team to help him. Like this summer’s “Knight & Day,” much of the running time deals with Sarah slowly learning who Frank is and what he can do, and the way she responds to this surreal, life-threatening situation. And, not surprisingly, she goes from terrified to turned on over the course of the trip, and again… the way Parker and Willis play the gradual evolution of their relationship really works, and the two of them make it feel like the first time someone’s played this particular storyline.
As William Cooper (the very funny Karl Urban) tries to track Frank and Sarah down, not aware that his boss Cynthia Wilkes (Rebecca Pidgeon in probably her best non-Mamet work ever) is using him to do someone else’s dirty work, Frank and Sarah turn to some old friends of Frank’s for help. That’s where Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), Ivan (Brian Cox), and Victoria (Helen Mirren) all come in. Ivan was actually an adversary, Frank’s equal on the Russian side, but now in a Post Cold War world, Ivan and Frank have more in common than most people, and old rivalries have mellowed into a shared past. Every one of these actors looks to be having a blast in the film. Mirren in particular seems perfectly at home with the heavy artillery, and she and Cox have some really charming chemistry of their own. Malkovich is impeccably funny in the film, and he steals almost every moment he’s onscreen. There are even nice smaller roles for Ernest Borgnine, James Remar, Richard Dreyfuss, and Julian McMahon, and everyone does strong work, even in the smallest moments.
I haven’t really cared for Robert Schwentke’s work up till now. Admittedly, I’ve only seen his American films, “Flightplan” and “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” and I’ve heard from several people that his earlier German films were much better. With “RED,” he proves to have a nimble touch for action and humor, and especially for the combination of the two, which is not something that every director can do well. Schwentke’s got a good eye, but he’s got a better ear. The film is solidly staged, and the action scenes deliver some kicks, but what really makes the film hum along enjoyably is the performance work. Schwentke managed to set just the right tone here, and all of his actors seem perfectly dialed in to what he’s doing.
Honestly, I couldn’t tell you two weeks after seeing the film why they were trying to kill Frank or exactly how the plot wrapped up, but I can tell you about all the little moments between the performers that made the film work for me, all the little quirks and oddities that made me laugh, and that sort of stuff is more important to me than yet another “man on the run” plot or government conspiracy. It seems like the filmmakers knew exactly what was most important, and emphasized it accordingly, and as a result, “RED” is a pleasure, and one that I encourage you to check out in this crowded movie weekend.
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