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Monday 28 February 2011

RED (2010)

Director: Robert Schwentke
Stars: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker and Helen Mirren

It really says something when a movie can be worth watching while carrying a one-word, scarily generic title and has nothing more interesting for ten minutes than Bruce Willis getting out of bed. Well, that's not strictly true: there's plenty happening for those who value the lost art of character building, but we don't expect that sort of thing in a big budget Hollywood action flick. Willis is Frank Moses, who is simply bored watching neighbours plug in Christmas decorations. He's so bored that he rings the girl at the helpdesk for his pension to tell her his avocado has grown two leaves. She's Sarah and he rings her a lot. He rings her so much that he knows what novels she reads. He reads them too, though they're unrealistic exotica about romantic spies who work in fashion parades, apparently because it's a connection to another human being. They've never met but apparently he's going to be in Kansas City soon and wants to meet her.

Now, if you've seen the trailer for RED, you'll know two things. One, it stars a lot of very talented actors who are getting along a little in years. Two, it's an action movie. Yet, thus far, we've had Bruce Willis and no action. I could almost imagine the most ADHD of the audience standing up and leaving, but if they did, they'll have missed the fun to come. Moses is bored because he has no idea what to do in a civilian world. He's a retired CIA operative, you see, trained to deal with any situation except nothing. So, as if the entire film turns into a wet dream for a retired man of action, all hell breaks loose. A group of gunmen attempt to take him down in his own house, which I'm sure you can imagine is not too bright an idea, especially given that the title of the film isn't a colour, it's an acronym and RED stands for Retired: Extremely Dangerous. Moses comes to life, takes them all down instead and even takes a finger from each so he can ID them later.

Once this initial burst of action is over, we know three things. The first two are that it's Christmas and Bruce Willis has no shoes on. The third is that this has the potential to be more fun than Live Free or Die Hard. What it turns into is a strange cross between True Lies and Space Cowboys, with a dose of Sneakers thrown in. Willis is more realistic than Schwarzenegger, naturally, as down to earth as he ever was as John McClane, but the action gets progressively more unrealistic as time goes by. What saves it is the fact that to discover who sent this South African hit squad he has to put his old black ops team back together. Frankly, that they are played by the actors they are is more than enough reason for you to watch this movie. If Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren aren't a dream team for an action movie, factor in Brian Cox as a Russian former opponent who helps out through gallantry. There's no way I could resist.
There is a plot, loosely sourced from the graphic novel by Warren Ellis, but its twists and turns are played as much for fun as for any attempt at consistency. This story is painted in very vivid colours indeed. Put simply, Moses runs from outlandish action scene to even more outlandish action scene, gradually inviting his old similarly bored colleagues back into the picture, so he can find out who's trying to kill them. There are three complications to this. The first are the bad guys: unknown, elusive and apparently very important. The second is William Cooper, a current CIA agent, who has been tasked with tracking down and killing Moses. Finally, there's Sarah Ross, the pension girl Moses was planning to meet. Realising that his phone would have been bugged, he promptly kidnaps Ross for her own protection, gradually turning her into the Jamie Lee Curtis role from True Lies.

Mary-Louise Parker is not as sexy as Curtis but she's decent as Sarah, taking the opportunity of being thrown into insane danger to live life like a heroine from one of her exotic romances, at least once she's got over her leading man drugging her, kidnapping her and absconding with her to a succession of different cities in rapid succession, not to mention putting her in more danger than can comfortably be imagined. That isn't her best date, she says, but it isn't her worst either. She also says that, 'People are basically kind of decent,' but she soon learns. She does play an active part in proceedings and Parker does well, but to be honest, her greatest achievement is not being lost in the mix given the co-stars she has to deal with. It speaks volumes for how good Willis is getting as an actor that he doesn't become background himself. Perhaps he's just old enough to be a viable character actor, even if he's in the lead.

And it's the character actors that really make this movie. As an action film, it's a wild nonsense ride of epic proportions. Just to highlight one particularly outrageous scene, Moses breaks into the frickin' CIA headquarters in Langley, finds his way to the office of his nemesis, kicks his ass, steals his pass, obtains files from a vault that's so secret that regular CIA agents don't know it even exists and still makes it out alive. Oh, and the plans he worked from were provided by a former KGB enemy. It reads almost like the fridge scene from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but fortunately this one is fun. If it had been played serious it would have been painful, but playing it with a sense of humour, albeit not as an out and out comedy, was a master touch. That and those actors. Frankly, the story doesn't matter. This is an excuse to watch Morgan Freeman in an insanely colourful African military uniform, watch John Malkovich spin tales of conspiracy and watch Helen Mirren handle a rocket launcher. That's all this really is.

Fortunately for this viewer, that's enough. I've always had a healthy respect for aging actors in an industry that puts most stock in the youngest and prettiest, whether they have any actual talent or not. I relish films that buck the studio trend and give real opportunities for the great names to do what the young 'uns do. Give me Space Cowboys over Armageddon any day. Even in genres you wouldn't expect, if the old guard are given the opportunity, they prove that they can still shine brighter than the starlets. For example, the most touching romance I've seen in years was 2008's Lovely, Still, starring 80 year old Martin Landau and 76 year old Ellen Burstyn. This one does that more than any recent film I can remember and the old folks steal the show with panache, even those in small roles like Richard Dreyfuss or 93 year old Ernest Borgnine, still going strong today and here working as the secret records keeper at the CIA.
80 year old Joe Matheson is stuck in the Green Springs Rest Home, talking orderlies into bending over in front of the TV to give him a thrill. He's played by 73 year old Morgan Freeman, who is a must if you want to make a film about old folks playing tough. Marvin Boggs is half insane and that may be an understatement, but he isn't paranoid because they really were out to get him. Given that he's a construct of what daily doses of LSD for 11 years does to you, fortunately he's played by John Malkovich, found in full camouflage at his underground house in a Florida swamp that you enter through a rusted car bonnet. In the form of Helen Mirren, Victoria is a picture of elegance, living peacefully in a gorgeous house, baking and flower arranging. Yet when the crew arrive, she has a firearm ready under the facade and she's more than happy to join the fight. 'Wow, this is going to be fun!' she cries, with a large gun in her hand.

Perhaps having more fun than even Malkovich in the gift of the role he's given is Brian Cox, one of the greatest actors you may never have never heard of. He puts on a Russian accent to play Ivan Simanov, an old time foe and a gallant man. 'As we get older, things seem less important,' he says and makes, 'I haven't killed anyone in years,' a plaintive line. The younger actors don't have much of a chance in such company, though they're hardly nobodies. William Cooper is a dynamo in the hands of Karl Urban. Julian McMahon is the US vice president, looking ironically like Cary Grant here, given that it's Mary-Louise Parker who gets to channel his role in North By Northwest, proving unfeasibly unflappable when caught up in a whirlwind of action that she is utterly not equipped to deal with. All are decent but for the most part can only offer background shading in a vivid impressionist painting of a movie.

There's a lot of admirable realism in some of the nuances. I like the concept that when these people meet, regardless of whose side they have traditionally been on, they ask each other if they're there to kill them. They're always prepared. None of them have ever really left the life; as Vicky points out, 'You can't just flip the switch and become someone else.' Yet however many neat subtleties can be found, the film as a whole is so over the top that the genre really should be fantasy rather than action. It may be painted in broad impressionistic brush strokes but really it's a grand cartoon, the changes to the source material not making much of a difference to the tone. That does mean that the sentimental moments lose their power, so this becomes glorious not for the emotion but for the simple fact that it's so much fun to watch the old guys kick the young guys' asses and do it with so much style. Old people are the ultimate underdogs.

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