Friday, October 15, 2010

Movie Review: "Red"

It's not too surprising to find Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Brian Cox co-starring in a film released in the awards season. These are respected actors who usually promote prestige projects this time of year.

It might be more surprising to discover that the film in question, "Red," features Malkovich toting a stuffed pig filled with guns, Cox hamming it up as a former Russian spy and Mirren, dressed in combat boots and a ball gown, firing a submachine gun with all the class and poise she displayed in "The Queen."

It goes without saying that Bruce Willis is the star.

Willis is Frank Moses, a retiree who spends his days working out and flirting over the phone with Sarah (Mary Louise-Parker), the clerk who sends out his pension checks. Moses has a bit of a crush on this girl, who encourages him to grow plants and tells him about the wonderfully trashy romance novels she reads at night. The two playfully chat over the phone and Moses suggests coming out to Kansas City to see her.

The film's opening 10 minutes have a playful sweetness to them, setting up what looks like a nice romantic comedy. It's perhaps a bit jarring when a team of assassins converges on Frank's house, quickly dispatched by the spry old man.

Frank, it turns out, is a former CIA assassin, classified as "Retired: Extremely Dangerous," or RED. Fearing that the men who tried to kill him will track his phone records and head for Sarah, Frank hightails it to Kansas City and forces her to come with him as he connects with his former CIA cohorts to figure out who wants him dead. This is not the first date she had in mind.

By the end of "Red's" two-hour runtime, I couldn't tell you exactly why the government was trying to kill Frank or who exactly was pulling all the strings. Based on a graphic novel by DC Comics, "Red's" plot is only an excuse to string together over-the-top action sequences, and scenes of Moses and his gang reminiscing about the good old days, when espionage was a "gentleman's game."

"Red" would likely be another disposable action-comedy were it not for the cast - surprising not for how out of place such esteemed actors appear, but for how comfortably they fit right into their roles. Malkovich, in particular, seems to be having the time of his life as an unhinged, paranoid former assassin who believes the government is trying to kill him to cover up for mind-control experiments they conducted - he has right to be paranoid, as the government did dose him with heavy amounts of LSD for years. Few actors play unstable as well as Malkovich, who sells every tic and outburst with hilarious flair, but also gets a few scenes to show just why he could be considered just as dangerous as Moses.

Mirren never phones in a role, and it's scary how comfortable she looks behind an automatic weapon with her steely eyes and hint of a smirk. Cox sells both menace and charm as Moses' former adversary who now is so weary of the game that he realizes he has more in common with his enemy than with most of his friends. Richard Dreyfuss is suitably slimy as a corporate villain and even Ernest Borgnine shows up, looking happy just to be along for the ride. The film's best scenes involve all of these characters chatting together, suggesting old histories, rivalries and romances that give the movie an unexpected sweetness. Only Morgan Freeman gets short shrift as Moses' best friend and fellow RED, showing up from time to time to crack a few jokes and help at a crucial moment.

The supporting cast is so good, in fact, that it's possible to forget that Willis is the film's star. It's tempting to say he's just playing the calm and collected hero role he's been doing for years. But there's a glint in his eye and a sense of humor that's been missing in his recent action work. When he's not invested in a role, his laconic nature can weigh down the film (see this year's "Cop Out"), but when he's having fun, it gives him a cool, dangerous edge (see his brief scene in this year's "Expendables"). In "Red," Willis brings more humor and style to the character than he did his last time out as John McClane, and he seems to relish the chance to have some romantic banter with Parker, who brings a comic jolt to a character that could easily be grating. It's funny to watch Sarah first be annoyed by the situation and then turned on by the adventure in which she finds herself. Wills also finds a suitable foil in Karl Urban ("Lord of the Rings"), the CIA agent tracking them down whose arc takes a few surprising and refreshing turns.

Director Robert Schwentke ("Flightplan") helms the action with one foot squarely in absurdity, particularly a sequence in a shipping yard where Malkovich literally hits a grenade like a baseball to save himself. The multiple car chases, shootouts and fist fights pack the adrenaline, but never become gratuitous or graphic because they're delivered with tongue fully planted in cheek, similar to this summer's "The A-Team" or "The Losers." "Red" is the better of those films, however, because of the joy these veterans are obviously having pulling off stunts that are usually left to the younger generation. "Red" is a slick B-movie usually reserved for summer, delivered with an A-list awards season cast. The combination is a great deal of fun.

"Red" likely won't be mentioned when these actors collect awards for, admittedly, higher-class projects in the future. I doubt it will be on a highlight reel at the Oscars. It's a solid and exciting action-comedy that hits the right notes in service of nothing more than entertainment. But if you've ever wanted to see the same woman who played the Queen of England take a shot at the vice president, here's your chance.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.