Old-School 'RED' a Colorful Blast
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
It's a given that sad sacks for whom aging is anathema will pass up a genial evening out with a colorful crew of charming oldsters who happen to be "RED": Retired, Extremely Dangerous CIA spooks. Also MIA will be fanboys jonesing for either a faithful screen adaptation of the graphic novel, or the recent blow-it-up-real-good genre of retiree cinema ("The Losers," "The A-Team," "The Expendables"). Although there's no dearth of spectacular gunplay and fisticuffs in Robert Schwentke's light-hearted actioner, what makes "RED" really rock is old-fashioned movie-star style. We're not talking glamour and charisma so much as low-key, deliciously self-aware humor and grace, effortlessly deliveRed by an A-list cast: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox, John Malkovich, Richard Dreyfuss, Mary-Louise Parker and Ernest Borgnine. Skirting hard-core issues of mortality, "RED" makes no apology for its silly story line, designed to showcase performers capable of aiming big guns and projecting personalities more impressively developed than their musculature.
Remaindered to a sleepy Cleveland suburb where every house looks like the next, black-ops retiree Frank Moses (Willis) is stuck in a dull, lonely life. He regularly tears up his Social Security checks so as to have an excuse for re-engaging his ongoing conversation with Sarah (Parker), a tart-tongued customer service staffer located in Kansas City. Then, one night, as Frank's neighborhood slumbers, a cadre of silhouettes march slowly across his snowy street, their automatic weapons spewing gunfire against a backdrop of yards populated by brightly lit plastic Santas and snowmen. It's a grabby shot, suggestive of an alien touchdown in Smalltown, USA. And it propels our exile back into the kind of action he lives and breathes.
To keep his lady love safe from the assassins hot on his trail, Frank heads to Kansas City to kidnap her. Only Mary-Louise Parker could manage such hilariously expressive communication through a duct-tape gag. Soon she graduates from captive to sidekick, her slow-burning, wide-eyed, deadpan double takes the perfect counterpoint to Willis' signature laid-back, low-voiced style. Time and again, Parker's growing taste for the game inspires Bruce's trademark twinkle, the endearing smirk. Smarter and way better fun than the screwball chatter in "Knight and Day," their pitch and catch recalls the celebrated rapport Willis and Cybill Shepherd enjoyed in TV's "Moonlighting."
Colorful postcards, a drolly old-fashioned touch, signal stops on the long road trip that follows -- New Orleans, New York, Florida, et al -- as our B-Team tries to find out why Frank's on a CIA hit list. On a Big Easy thoroughfare, Willis exits his car in midspin, heading inexorably, gun firing, toward a pursuing vehicle. Pure grandstanding, that moment of smooth, integrated kinesis is irresistible; watching it, one can't help lighting up with pleasure. Like "RED"'s extended climax -- the kidnapping of a government official -- the action is precisely and intelligently choreographed. It's such a welcome alternative to explosions, multiple car crashes, and the kind of mayhem that lacks direction or design.
In his time of need, Frank finds old friends have his back -- especially since retirement doesn't suit these firecrackers either. Marvin Boggs (Malkovich) hangs out in gator country, his aboveground house a decoy for the helicopters and hit men he believes are stalking him. His actual domicile underground is reached through the trunk of an abandoned car. Malkovich can do eccentric nut-ball in his sleep (and often has), but here he deftly plays a guy whose brain's been pickled by LSD courtesy of his government -- a big demented kid driven by equal parts expertise and paranoia, and hungry for company and purpose.
Mirren plays grande dame to a fare-thee-well: ensconced in an elegant Chesapeake Bay mansion where she arranges flowers -- and occasionally takes on freelance wetwork for recreation. Hefting massive firearms, slinking gorgeously through swanky parties, advising Sarah that if the girl breaks Frank's heart, she, the consummate killer, will off her in the blink of an eye, Mirren manifests all the sexy authority of an Uzi-totin' ice queen. But not entirely frigid, as we gather when an old Russian comrade (magnificent Brian Cox, the first and best Hannibal Lecter) joins the posse.
As an arms-dealing political kingmaker, diminutive Dreyfuss revels in his own corruption, actually throwing a tantrum -- "I'm the bad guy! I'm the bad guy!" -- when the over-the-hill gang threatens to up the evil ante. Freeman of course can do no wrong; reprising his "Bucket List" status as an eightysomething dying of cancer, he brings his usual resonant sweetness to the enterprise: "The old band's getting back together. ... It's nice." It's like a wry blessing ... for this clutch of aging gunslingers, for the veteran actors who play them, and for us, who have the pleasure of their company for an hour or so.
Kat Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and websites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.