Based on the comic written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Cully Hamner (published by the DC Comics imprint Wildstorm), RED, a fictional acronym for "Retired and Extremely Dangerous," follows former CIA black operations agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) as he tries to unravel the plot against him after surviving a hit by a hired assassin (well, several hired assassins). With lovely Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) in tow, Frank wrangles together his old colleges – Marvin (John Malkovich), Joe (Morgan Freeman), and Victoria (Helen Mirren) – to help him break into the one place that holds the answers they seek – the CIA headquarters.
RED is as much of a comedy as it is an action movie, a leap from the decidedly darker comic. The humor enlivens the complicated plot, which can be difficult to follow at times. However, the story arcs here are familiar and easily digestible, with explosive action sequences and dramatic high stakes confrontations. While not a film for close analysis, RED is witty, fast, and enjoyable – like an airport paperback. RED is conscious of its pseudo-intellectualism, often poking fun at its own ridiculousness. In terms of quick laughs, RED delivers. The humor here is like cotton candy: impeccably light but unsubstantial.
Although the writing isn't brilliant, the acting is. The accomplished cast of RED take turns upstaging each other, fleshing out flimsy characters and revitalizing ho-hum dialogue. It seems the talented ensemble can create substance even where there is none. For example, Frank's former CIA co-worker Marvin (Malkovich) exhibits highly schizophrenic qualities, such as paranoia and violence. When Frank introduces Marvin to Sarah, Frank explains Marvin's behavior is a result of receiving high doses of LSD for several years as the primary subject in a secret government experiment. In the hands of a less competent actor, Marvin could have been over the top or even offensive. Malkovich maintains a delicate balance of portraying a paranoid schizophrenic as comedic without making fun of the character.
Bruce Willis's Frank reminds me of his Butch in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction: dangerous yet tender. While familiar, Willis embodies this dichotomy with ease. Willis is intimidating and tough in action scenes, with a physique muscular enough to match his enormous firearms. With Sarah, however, Willis reveals a softer side to Frank, with human insecurities and vulnerabilities. The chemistry between Willis's Frank and Mary-Louise Parker's Sarah is electric. They create a dynamic relationship by using each scene as an opportunity to develop their characters further.
Another delight is Oscar recipient Helen Mirren, equally graceful and vicious as former CIA agent Victoria. Mirren instills a depth of character in Victoria that makes her supporting role especially memorable. Morgan Freeman's Joe is reminiscent of many of his previous roles – when isn't Morgan Freeman stoic and wise? – but this is what Morgan Freeman does best.
Karl Urban is also worthy of mention as William Cooper, the CIA agent pursuing Frank. The evolution of Cooper's character reminded me of the protagonist in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's fabulous 2006 thriller The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). In the same way the secret policeman in that film vacillates between his duty to his government and his empathy for the subjects of his surveillance, Cooper is torn between his own conflicting loyalties. As the films progress, so does the tension between these opposing impulses.
RED may not be unique, or groundbreaking in any way, but it is fine as a Friday night flick. However, with a cast as strong as this one, I would have hoped for a stronger film. Even John Malkovich can only do so much.
Rating: TWO AND A HALF BONES
Reviewed by Marit Rogne
Release Date: October 15th, 2010
Starring: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, and Karl Urban
Director: Robert Schwentke
Writer: Erich Hoeber