Better RED than dead: Star-studded firepower saves the day

by Mark Burger

RED, the big-screen blow-out based on Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s DC Comics graphic novel, is conveyed in splashy and colorful terms by director Robert Schwentke, and lent irresistible appeal by its star-studded cast, which plays its roles with a palpable sense of just that: Play.

The hero of RED — which is an acronym for “Retired and Extremely Dangerous” — is (surprise, surprise) Bruce Willis, playing retired CIA agent Frank Moses. Once he was the best of the best. Now he languishes in dull retirement after being put out to pasture. Things aren’t so dull, however, once a team of assassins shows up at his door, determined to punch his ticket once and for all.

Someone wants Bruce Willis dead? Gee, anybody heard this one before? To find out who wants him dead and why, Frank hits the road, rounding up former espionage cohorts Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman, very relaxed), Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich, very funny) and Victoria (Helen Mirren, very adjustable to the spirit of the proceedings) along the way.

Along for the ride, most reluctantly at first, is UNCSA’s own Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah Ross, a retirement-benefits clerk whom Frank’s been flirting with on the phone. Is it any surprise that, amid the flying bullets and falling bodies, love blooms?

It should be no surprise whatsoever that Frank and his old-school comrades manage to turn the tables on their enemies. In terms of star power, it’s hardly a competition. Not unlike the recent box-office hit The Expendables, there’s the distinct impression that the so called old-timers can certainly show the bad guys (and the younger generation) a thing or two about delivering comeuppance.

RED offers yet another unflattering portrait of the nation’s intelligence communities, in particular the CIA. (When all else fails, the Agency is surely to blame.) The film also offers the pleasure of seeing its cast go through the paces. In addition to the marquee names, you’ll also find Ernest Borgnine (bless him), James Remar and Brian Cox, in a dandy turn as an old-hat KGB agent with loyalties that go (above and) beyond the Kremlin, or what’s left of it.

The cast is in good and high spirits, although Freeman and Mirren have surprisingly limited screen time. The other actors, however, have little problem taking up the slack. Willis has definitely played this sort of role before, yet he (wisely) allows his co-stars their moments to take center stage while playing straight man to their antics. Malkovich is able to elicit laughs with mere glances — a testament as much to his quirky screen persona as his undeniable abilities as an actor.

RED does lack a central antagonist, although there are varying degrees of nastiness exhibited by Richard Dreyfuss, Rebecca Pidgeon and Julian McMahon, the latter turning up late in the game as a corrupt Vice President. Karl Urban, as the CIA agent hot on Frank’s trail, turns out not to be such a bad guy after all — once he understands the extent of the conspiracy and realizes that he too is a pawn.

Nevertheless, thanks to its irresistible all-star cast, RED gets by on sheer personality alone. It’s silly and lightweight, but not stupid. It’s cheerful, but never smug or obnoxious. The actors are clearly having a ball, and that enthusiasm is infectious. This is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a pleasure to sit through.