This has been a good year for action movies. Last summer alone had
the triple-whammy of The Losers, The Expendables, and The
. Even Inception was basically an ensemble
team-on-a-mission flick with running, gunning and scheming dressed in so
much intellectual wrapping. And now, we have one more in the genre for
this year.

RED is the first — and probably the only — film adapted from
a DC Comics property that wasn’t released by a Time Warner company.
Summit handled the funding and distribution for this one, choosing to
release the film in October, of all months. This has widely been
considered an unorthodox move, but I personally think that distancing
the film from the aforementioned summer blockbusters to give it some
breathing room was a very savvy decision.

The movie itself is about a half-dozen of the finest agents to ever
retire from the CIA, set to hunt down the people who are trying to kill
them. It’s really quite a threadbare premise, but it’s elevated to great
heights by the actors cast and what they do with it. This film is
loaded almost entirely with classic names in acting, all of them
competing with each other to see who can steal the most scenes. I know
that this was also the approach to casting The Expendables, but
the films differ on two counts. First is that Stallone and company more
or less went through their movie under the pretense that they were all
still in their physical prime. Second is that with the exception of
Bruce Willis (who got a cameo in Expendables, incidentally), none
of the actors in RED made their name as action stars. These all
well-renowned thespians who are blowing shit up and knocking people out,
playing against their senescence and established images while clearly
loving every minute of it.

First, let’s talk about Bruce Willis. What happened to this guy? Ever
since his awesome turn in Sin City five years ago, his
filmography has been loaded with voice-over roles, uncredited
performances, cameos, assorted flops and such John McClane cash-ins as Cop
and… well, Live Free or Die Hard. It’s like he hasn’t
even been trying. Until now.

Willis has a lot to do in the role of Frank Moses. For starters, the
guy is smitten with a Social Security worker whom he’s only ever spoken
with on the phone. Willis plays this like Moses is a teenager with a bad
crush and it works. He feels his age and the ongoing flirtation makes
him feel young again. Willis sells all of this, with every emotion it
entails. Of course, the vast majority of RED focuses on Moses as
an old man and a superb warrior. This is where Willis taps into his John
McClane character, crafting a man who is very decidedly old-school in
his methods and attitude. However, while McClane was mostly a guy who
flew by the seat of his pants all the time, Moses is a crafty bastard.
He always has a plan and he’s always a step ahead of everyone else. It’s
not easy to sell this level of brains and brawn, but Willis somehow
does it.

Next is Morgan Freeman, who doesn’t get nearly enough to do. The man
is very charming and every moment he has onscreen is a joy, but his
screen time is cut way too short for various reasons and that’s a damn
shame. Fortunately, Brian Cox is around to pick up the slack, serving as
the team’s reserve member and getting some pretty awesome moments of
his own. He also gets a fair bit of time with Helen Mirren, who is on
fire with this one. She’s adorable, she’s badass and she hilariously
plays her character as a woman with a potentially very raunchy past.

John Malkovich is hilarious here, playing the practical application
to that classic theoretical question, “Is it really paranoia if everyone
actually is out to get you?” It’s so very tempting to call Marvin Boggs
crazy, except that so many of his paranoid suspicions turn out to be
true and pretty much all of his countermeasures against imaginary
threats have turned him into a very real threat. Boggs is proof that
there is nothing more dangerous than a lunatic with heavy artillery and
high explosives.

The villain is played by Richard Dreyfuss, who’s chewing scenery like
a zombie at a shopping mall. Dreyfuss plays an arms manufacturer with
heavy political influence, making up for his brief screen time by
crafting the sleaziest, slimiest, greediest, least ethical coward he
possibly can. It’s totally one-dimensional and God knows this isn’t the
first time a corporate money grubber has been played as pure evil (just
ask Michael Caine),
but Dreyfuss makes it a lot of fun to watch.

Then there’s Ernest Borgnine, who basically gets a glorified cameo
here. Borgnine could have played this role in his sleep, though his
presence does add a lot of heft to what’s otherwise a throwaway

As for our younger stars, there’s Karl Urban as CIA Agent William
Cooper. Urban delivers an extraordinary CIA agent who utilizes all of
the finest technology available to get the job done. He’s also quite
good at CQC and very intelligent to boot. If Frank Moses represents the
old-school CIA, then Cooper represents the new style and it’s
fascinating to watch them play off each other in this regard. Adding to
this is that in spite of his position against Moses, Cooper’s really not
a bad guy. He’s just a family man trying to end this whole affair,
doing so as legally and bloodlessly as possible. It’s quite heavily
implied that Cooper and Moses learn a lot from each other over the
course of this movie and it was nice to see Urban and Willis play that.

Last but not least, we have Mary-Louise Parker as love interest Sarah
Ross. Mostly, this involves acting as a sounding board for all the
craziness around her and Parker plays this wonderfully. She has great
chemistry with Willis and her comedic timing is impressive, though her
attempts at “attitude” fell flat quite often (“You’re asking me for
help? That is so lame.”). Of course, Sarah does get captured in the most
pathetically useless way possible, but she also gets a genius save
involving a contact lens, so I guess it evens out. It’s also worth
mentioning that Sarah is established as an unhappy cubicle worker who
loves Harlequin romance novels, longs to travel someplace and is sick of
dating mundane guys her age. She could not be more transparently set up
to fall in love with an old spy who takes her on covert missions.
However, it’s still understandably hard for the two of them to fall for
each other, given the circumstances of their meet-cute, so I’ll let this

The acting in this film is very good all around. The story, however,
is predictable in many places and full of holes. I know it’s odd to
complain about plot holes in a big, dumb, loud conspiracy action
thriller like this one, but anytime a clue is left and found in a
library book, I’m going to call bullshit. Still, a couple of clunker
lines and the occasional plot hole doesn’t really get to my main problem
with this movie: Its tone.

I kept getting the distinct impression that this film didn’t know
just what its ideal action/comedy ratio was. There were a few outlandish
action shots (my personal favorite being the grenade that was thrown at
Marvin, who batted it back with the butt of an assault rifle just in
time for the grenade to vaporize its user), but these are way too few
and far-between to act as an action self-parody (see: The A-Team).
However, there was still way too much comedy present for the film to be
a straight action movie (as The Expendables was). Call me
narrow-minded, but it seems to me like action movies have to be one or
the other nowadays and I was never sure which this film was going for.

Adding to this confusion are the visuals, which are just trying too
damn hard. There is absolutely no subtlety in the camera work or editing
(the close-up of a bullet on a frying pan comes to mind), making for a
film that visually takes itself quite seriously as action. On the other
hand, we also have the onscreen postcards to announce our current
location. These graphics are obviously trying to be comedic and
inventive, but just come off as annoying and distracting.

The direction of RED leaves quite a bit to be desired, but the
main draw of this movie is its cast and the actors do not disappoint.
There are a lot of clever moments and times of humor to be found here,
amidst the visual deficiencies. This all adds up to a pleasantly
mediocre time at the movies. It’s an action film to enjoy and promptly
forget about. I know we’ve had a lot of those lately, but I’m still
recommending this movie. After all, when else will you ever get to see
Helen Mirren in a gunfight with automatic firearms?