Of all movie genres, action and comedy traditionally fare the best at the box office, but usually lose out with critics, art-house patrons, and people in charge of handing out Academy Awards. It’s very difficult for any film to appeal to both the right and left sides of the brain.
“RED” is a movie that could have fit snuggly into the daring, anti-establishment mindset of the mid-'70s. It takes chances and hopes against hope that its audience is smart and patient, yet never loses sight that it is ultimately a nod-and-a-wink popcorn movie.
The only thing “RED” takes seriously is its mission to entertain, and can rightfully be mentioned in the same breath as Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and “Inglourious Basterds.” If you remove the comedic element, you could also include “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View.” “RED” might not have been the best film of 2010, but became an instant classic and ultimately my favorite movie of that year.
In a role not all that far removed from that in “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis takes the lead as Frank, a former C.I.A. agent who has settled into a life of solitary mundane suburbia. He’s bored out of his skull and his only outside stimulation comes by way of weekly phone calls to government payroll minion Sarah (Mary Louise Parker).
While Frank tells Sarah he hasn’t received his retirement checks, he tears those same checks up and queries her on what she’s read lately. She’s into cheap Harlequin novels and a stack of her previously recommended titles sits on Frank’s nightstand. Frank’s thoroughly enamored and hooked on a woman he’s never met or even seen.
Kicking and ScreamingFor reasons never fully explained by the film, Frank becomes the target of an assassination attempt and, by mere association, Sarah as well. He bolts to her Kansas City home, scoops her up, and hits the road. Frank assures the kicking and screaming Sarah that this is all for the best, and even when she’s sure her life is in danger and Frank is totally unhinged, she seems secretly relieved to be set free of her workaday cubicle existence.
As he is a “RED” (Retired, Extremely Dangerous), Frank is more than able to stay a step or two ahead of his less-experienced pursuers and soon locates two of his former cronies. Joe (Morgan Freeman) is passing his time in a placid nursing home while the paranoid, loose-screw Marvin (John Malkovich) prefers deep cover within the bowels of a Florida swamp.
Much later on the trio, along with the increasingly impressed and giddy Sarah, eventually meet up with fourth cog Victoria (Helen Mirren), living peacefully just outside of Washington and marking time making bland flower arrangements at a high-end bed and breakfast.
Age and TreacheryTaking the adage “age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill” fully to heart, the quartet of AARP-aged ex-government spooks, along with former Russian mole Ivan (Brian Cox), begin their preemptive strike against the Man. This counterinsurgency didn’t at all occur to either ambitious current C.I.A. agent Cooper (Karl Urban) or the well-protected political sacred cow arms-dealer Dunning (Richard Dreyfuss).
Baring just a slight resemblance to the far more serious and violent graphic novel on which it’s based, “RED” never veers far outside traditional action/comedy boundaries yet delivers welcomed surprises at every turn. Any movie showing Ms. Mirren packing heat while donning formal evening wear should be of major interest to all moviegoers, no matter what their age.
Almost all of “RED” is terribly irreverent in a most positive way and even while sticking close to commercial constraints, German director Robert Schwentke (“The Divergent” franchise) and sibling screenwriters John and Erich Hoeber always find a way to keep the audience guessing—and giggling.
Taking in close to $200 million at the global box office (against a $58 million budget), “RED” is the rare action flick that pleased both audiences and critics which, of course, led to an obligatory sequel.
Released three years later, “RED 2,” even with most of the original cast returning plus Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones, was a major waste of time. It cost more, made less, and only succeeded in souring the memory of “RED.” Sometimes it’s better to just leave well enough alone.