Though marketed as an action flick, RED does not begin or end as you might expect. The film's first 10 minutes are more in line with a quirky romantic comedy, while the final scene—without giving anything away—is absolutely insane, along the lines of a Monty Python sketch (and far sillier than anything preceding it). Yet this mix of genres serves the movie well, ultimately giving it broader appeal.
We first meet 55-year-old Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) quietly adjusting to a lonely life of early retirement in suburban Cleveland. Spending most of his time exercising and keeping his house clean, the only bright spot in his dull existence is a budding long-distance relationship with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), an equally lonely 40-something who works for the Department of Revenue in Kansas City. Frank tears up his pension checks after receiving them in the mail as an excuse to call Sarah, and the two sweetly talk about trashy novels and travel dreams during their regular phone exchanges. You'll swear you walked into You've Got Mail by accident.
That idea gets blown away (literally) when a team of shadowy operatives arrive at Frank's house in the middle of the night, turning it into Swiss cheese with their machine guns—and then Frank disposes of the assassins with cool efficiency. Turns out he's a former black-ops CIA agent tagged as "RED"—Retired and Extremely Dangerous. (Kinda gives new meaning to respecting your elders, eh?)
Why are people trying to assassinate Frank now that he's laying low in his golden years? Sure, it might have something to do with his mysterious past, but he assumes the catalyst involves his conversations with Sarah. Traveling to Kansas City to protect/kidnap her, Frank begins a fast-paced cross-country adventure to uncover the shadowy conspiracy that has made him (and others) a target. Frank reconnects with other "old" friends and colleagues, including kindly Joe (Morgan Freeman), paranoid recluse Marvin (John Malkovich), and assassin-turned-Martha-Stewart Victoria (Helen Mirren). Meanwhile, a hard-boiled agent (Karl Urban) is in pursuit with orders to take down Frank by any means possible.
Don't go into RED hoping for a smart and complex political thriller. The conspiracy itself is the weakest aspect, existing only to keep the players in motion—it's all a bit linear like National Treasure in that a clue leads to the next scene with the next character introduction, action sequence, and revelation. But with so many other spy thrillers and action movies over the last decade, it's hard not to see this as more of the same. There are at least a couple good twists along the way, but seriously, how often can we revisit the idea of a sinister plot that may or may not involve corruption at the highest levels of American government? Been there, done that, and frankly, pretty tired of the same formula at this point.
But RED balances its recycled plot with a playful, almost light-hearted tone that owes much to the gimmicky idea of retirees capable of death and destruction when pushed too far. The movie's story is based on a graphic novel from DC Comics, but it shares little in common beyond the title and basic premise. What was originally a dark, straightforward revenge story akin to Death Wish has been adapted into something that is neither a pure action movie nor a spoof: it's an action-comedy of laughs, thrills, and a little bit of heart.
Adding to the appeal is a solid ensemble cast. The leads all play along with their typecasting—Willis the cold killer with a warm heart, Freeman the charming old man, Malkovich the cynic, and Mirren the refined Brit. But how fun to see these four also play off familiar favorites like Parker, Urban, Brian Cox, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfus, Rebecca Pidgeon, James Remar, and Julian McMahon. Granted, most of these parts amount to thinly defined cameos, but it helps to have so many terrific character actors carry the film.
RED is ultimately more of a guilty pleasure than a great movie. The action isn't great (too much of it is CGI-enhanced and repetitive), but it's diverting. It's not great comedy either (sometimes resorting to cheap laughs like the sight of Malkovich carrying around a stuffed pig or the aforementioned final scene), but it delivers laughs. One can't help but wonder what might have been if the film's concept had been married to a more clever script with more spectacular stunts.
But RED still manages to push the right buttons with the right people involved. It's a fun spin on the spy genre with the seasoned veterans showing up the more inexperienced greenhorns. And though it never fully commits to any single genre, it manages to juggle them all well enough to appeal to a broader audience. Young or old, male or female, chances are you'll be seeing RED once the positive word of mouth hits.Discussion starters
- Several of the "RED" characters reflect on how they never thought they would become old. Is that because of their dangerous profession, or is the subject of aging something we all think about—or avoid thinking about? At what point does one become "old"? Is it a state of mind or state of being?
- What does a movie like this say about respecting our elders? Why do you suppose seniors are so often neglected and overlooked? Are they less useful or less knowledgeable? What older people in your life could you do a better job with forging a relationship?
- Bruce Willis' character notes that life is meaningless without someone to love. Do you agree? Is it only romantic love he's talking about? Discuss. How does love work with faith in giving our lives purpose and meaning?
- What do you think about the idea of our government being responsible for ethical violations? Are such violations inherent in our government? What do movies like this say about the state of our government in America and the trust of the American people?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
RED is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence and brief strong language. The violence is stylized, much like the stuff of James Bond movies—lots of gunfire and explosions. Of the more graphic moments, a bad guy is blown to pieces by a grenade, someone is executed by hanging, and some of the brawling gets a little bloody, but the emphasis is generally more on the action than the violence. The same is true of the profanity, which is surprisingly scarce except for a handful of words, including misuse of God's name and a single f-bomb.
Photos © Summit Entertainment / DC Comics.
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