Red the comic book was a serious bit of work that only saw acclaim and a big screen treatment because writer Warren Ellis is one of the medium’s most beloved creators. It wasn’t a very good read and just another in a very long line of assassin stories we’ve seen far too many of but it sold well enough and had enough name recognition to get optioned. As we’ve seen so many times before, what a graphic novel or comic is on the shelves often has very little resemblance to what appears onscreen. Usually the silver screen lessens and diminishes the work from the page.
Luckily Red the movie has very little in common with its pulpy ancestor and though it’s light and forgettable its playful demeanor and uncomplicated agenda makes for a fun time at the movies. It’s considerably better than the source material, which is a nice change of pace. It also serves as a reminder that Bruce Willis can still be engaging if given the right role even though the majority of his choices in the past decade have tarnished my appreciation for him, Red is in some ways a return to form for the actor and since he’s seemingly aged eleven months over the past fifteen years a newly invigorated Bruno bodes well for us all.
Willis is Frank Moses, a retired government operative whose peaceful existence consists of extreme simplicity and little else. A modest house. A routine. No killing. He’s found a way to keep entertained in the form of Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), a lowly government payroll employee responsible for sending Frank his meager checks and a person whose taste in cheesy romance novels has rubbed off on him to the extent that he tears up his checks just for a reason to call her and chat. He’s not bothering anyone, but his past is too big a deal to allow him his minimalist existence and when a wetworks team arrives at his house and peppers it with seemingly every bullet ever manufactured Moses needs to retaliate. He efficiently deals with his attackers but whomever has sent then has been monitoring him, so now Sarah’s a target. And thus Frank Moses steps out of retirement to kick some ass and get the old team together for if he’s been targeted then so must have they. Add John Malkovich’s paranoid and loony Marvin, Morgan Freeman’s sly Joe, and Helen Mirren’s demure and dangerous Victoria and you have a very colorful quartet of aging slaughterers. Parker’s around initially to be the damsel in distress but luckily the character evolves from there to become more than a wafer-thin addition. She’s too good an actor for that.
The tone and pace of the film is light and breezy and director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) does a nice job of making the action pop but never succumbs to the overcooking of the style that prohibited me from enjoying Shoot ‘Em Up. It’s not especially bloody or violent but it gets the point across and few excel as well as Willis at effortlessly delivering tough guy antics without seeming hokey. Though the action is often seriously over the top [the scene where he calmly steps from a moving car to shoot some bad guys is featured prominently in the trailer and is a prime example], the best moments involve seeing these people together and when Brian Cox surfaces as a suave old school Russian spy it’s hard not to be at least a little smitten. It’s a low impact unpretentious comedic action film, and in a year where we’ve had The Losers and The A-Team deliver good, dumb fun at the theater, Red represents a slightly more elegant variation on the theme.
There are some decent action bits throughout the film, and things are made considerably more interesting with Karl Urban playing an adversary who actually isn’t one-dimensional. He’s actually the most well-defined character in the movie and if there’s an actor in recent memory who has really surprised me with how they’ve stepped up their game more than Urban I can’t think of them. He’s poised to either become a really solid second tier leading man or a very good character actor, I’m not sure which but he’s got something intangible that elevates what could have been a very bland and thankless role. Additionally, it’s good to see folks like James Remar, Richard Dreyfus, and Ernest Borgnine peppering the scenery. It helps add a little more value to the concept. The end result is a film that will not stick in the memory for much longer than it takes to drive home from the theater but it’s just enough to make Red that rare movie from this time of year that isn’t some orphan but rather a nice transitional piece of entertainment between the hearts of the summer and fall movie slate.
Plus, Helen Mirren can do no wrong. Give her a sniper rifle and the world is but putty in her hands.