"RED" is just a fun film.
Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) lives a very quiet life of retirement from his work as a Black Ops agent for the CIA. Getting out of bed at the stroke of 6:00 am, Frank tries desperately to fill the hours. His one relationship is with the Customer Service Operator, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) at the Fed's benefits office. They talk on a regular basis and Frank has even started reading the same books, One day, a group of gunmen arrive and clearly want to kill Frank. He escapes and rounds up his old crew in an effort to figure out what is going on, why is someone trying to kill him. He heads to New Orleans to warn his old pal, Joe (Morgan Freeman), who now lives in a retirement home. Then, they head to a waterside retreat where Marvin (John Malkovich) is currently living. Marvin is a lot crazy but contributes a lot to the group. Last, they head up north to find Victoria (Helen Mirren). With the gang reassembled, they set out to find out what is going on and who is targeting them. At the same time, a CIA agent, William Cooper (Karl Urban, "Star Trek") is hot on their tail.
Directed by Robert Shwentke ("Flightplan", "The Time Traveler's Wife") and based on a graphic novel, "RED" is a very pleasing mix of comedy, action and intensity.
What I think I like best about "RED" is the juxtaposition of quiet, more real-life moments with moments of extreme, even absurd violence or slapstick comedy. Frank is quietly drawn to Sarah, the operator who helps him with his "lost" retirement checks. He finds an excuse to call her, and can quickly cycle through the routine responses to quickly navigate the automated phone system and get her on the phone. They have never met but we get the sense they have a lot in common. And Frank is willing to learn more and more about her. But a visit from a CIA Cleaning crew leaves no question in Frank's mind someone wants him dead. Even though Frank is retired, he still has some sensitive knowledge and dangerous skills at his disposal. In fact, he seems to jump at the chance to come out of retirement; he has to start using these skills to save his life and the lives of his friends.
As Frank travels around and rounds up his old crew, the story moves just as quickly and we learn a CIA director (Rebecca Pidgeon, "The Spanish Prisoner") has enlisted the help of an ambitious CIA operative, William Cooper (Karl Urban). Cooper is determined to carry out his orders and seems to get frustrated when Frank or one of his cronies get the better of him. At first, he doesn't understand why it is so important to get rid of these retirees, but then he witnesses first hand the skill set they have. Then, he welcomes the challenge.
In fact, the film benefits from a certain madcap quality. Throughout, the characters and story take quick turns, leading to places we might not expect. When Frank shows up at Joe's retirement home, Joe (Freeman) is engaging in his favorite pastime; he has asked one of the young female caretakers to adjust the antenna, affording him a view of her backside as she moves back and forth. Later, when Victoria enters the picture, Mirren provides a lot of laughs by acting completely against the type of character she usually plays (dignified Brits and/ or Royals). On the surface, Victoria seems very prim and proper, but she has a very specific and unique skill set she is only too willing to call into use again.
It almost seems as though Shwentke is trying to channel the spirit of the Coen Brothers. "Raising Arizona", "The Big Lebowski", "Burn After Reading" have all influenced this film. Is "RED" as good as a Coen Brothers' film? No way. But it is heads and shoulders above 90 percent of the other films playing in your local multiplex.
The relationship between Frank and Sarah is also a surprise. Initially, it seems like a very sweet love story. Sarah is as lonely as Frank is bored and as we watch them talk on the phone, we get why they are attracted to one another. Sarah waits anxiously for Frank to call and they quickly get the business part out of the way so they can talk. When they talk, it seems as though they have been friends forever, even though they have never met face to face. As soon as Frank realizes he is in trouble, the first person he seeks out is Sarah, leading the story to move and change in unexpected, funny ways.
Mary-Louise Parker (Showtime's "Weeds") is great as Sarah. Just about every moment she is on screen, her facial expression or a new mannerism gives us a little insight into her character. She is happy to get a phone call from Frank just about every day. These moments bring a little brightness to her otherwise dull and drab life.
John Malkovich has a lot of fun playing the off-balance Marvin Boggs. Marvin clearly relishes the more violent aspects of their job a little too much. He runs into situations, ready to brandish explosives rather than take a step back and analyze the situation in more detail, much like his co-workers would. When they put him in check, he is mildly resentful, but the emotion quickly passes, much like a small child might exhibit.
In fact, all four members of Frank's team seem to relish their call back to action, leaving the retirement and quiet far behind. Retirement is boring and unsatisfying.
Karl Urban is also quite good as William Cooper, the CIA agent assigned to bring Frank and his team down. Initially, he seems to be a bit like the Terminator, determined to fulfill his contract, determined to stop Frank and the others, no matter the cost or collateral damage. But as he continues to find himself thwarted by the older, retired CIA members, he gradually learns some of the reasons behind the assignment. This knowledge helps him become a little less determined. And this change is his character is revealed through small moments, small gestures, and quick statements. It makes William seem more human and interesting.
The problem with the film comes with the rest of the cast. Richard Dreyfuss pops up as a crooked businessman, a very crooked, very powerful businessman. Rebecca Pidgeon plays the CIA operative who gives William his orders. Julian McMahon ("Fantastic Four", TV's "Nip/ Tuck") plays the Vice President of the United States. There is really no subtlety in these characters and they simply play like caricatures marring the rest of the film. Because everything else has at least one off the wall touch, one level of uniqueness, these characters stand out because they don't.
And the conclusion is almost too predictable. When people start popping out of the woodwork, all trying to take control… and credit… the story begins to play out like a bad episode of an old Quinn Martin TV show.
Thankfully, the rest of the film is good enough to countermand these negative moments.
"RED" is a fun, off-center film, eager and willing to take the story and characters to a slightly off-center place. When any film tries to do this, it deserves a look. When a film like "RED" does this with a certain degree of success, you will leave the theater happy and smiling.