Red: Old Dogs Doing New Tricks
Goodyear doesn’t reinvent the wheel every time it wants to make a quality tire. This film is very similar to this year’s The Losers and The A-Team in plot: a group of undercover operatives are double-crossed by their country, so they must take on those in charge to take their lives back. It takes the same formula, adds the twist of old age, sprinkles in several of the best older actors in Hollywood, and comes out with a very entertaining if disposable action-comedy. It’s smart enough to know exactly what the audience wants to see, and it’s daring enough to take some of the action to an unexpectedly intense level. Much of the dialogue is sitcom-level at best, but it’s made up for by the masters who elevate it. Look, do you want to see Helen Mirren and John Malkovich blowing up cars with machine guns or don’t you? Of course you do. And Red is in the business of giving you what you want.
Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) lives the dull life of a retiree. He wakes up, he goes through the monotony of the day-to-day routine, and to pass the time, he calls his pension office in Kansas City to talk to Sarah (Mary Louise-Parker), a nice customer service agent. One night, Moses is attacked in his home which is shot up and blown to kingdom come. He escapes, and the first thing he realizes? They’re going to try to use Sarah to get to him, so he kidnaps Sarah and heads off to meet others from his past to help him, with CIA Agent Cooper (Karl Urban) assigned to murdering him. After re-uniting with Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), and Victoria (Helen Mirren), Moses discovers how to find the truth, who’s behind it all, and how to stop them. The answers to these questions require doing things and going after people that are basically suicide missions. But would the film be as fun if they were anything but?
The film as a whole is engaging on a spectacle level if not a storytelling level. The relationship between Frank and Sarah is beyond unbelievable– it’s distractingly sitcommy. Outside of one or two cool action scenes, the movie is satisfied sitting in neutral with Frank and Sarah until John Malkovich enters the screen. Willis is cool per usual, and he’s definitely a believably badass old guy, but Louise-Parker isn’t really given a real role to play: she’s a story device, not a human being. For the first twenty minutes or so of the film, I was terrified that the film would never take off and reach its potential for fun. Morgan Freeman, who showed that he can have fun in this genre in the film Wanted, doesn’t have much to do in this film either, perhaps because he’s the least likely of the bunch to be involved in any sort of action sequence. For reasons such as these, the film fails to take off and reach the next level– it’s fun because we acknowledge that we enjoy watching these actors, not because we’re lost in the story of the characters.
But boy, is it fun watching these actors work. John Malkovich essentially adds a full star (or kernel) to whatever grade your film gets whenever he’s in the cast– and somewhere in the late nineties, Malkovich began savoring his role as fun hambone supporting actor. He’s absolutely a blast here. Helen Mirren is perhaps the only woman of her age who could believably take down Secret Service agents, because, well, she just seems so cool. She brings the elegance she had in The Queen to every role, be it a period piece or a Jerry Bruckheimer sequel. She classes up an already classy affair by her mere presence. Other terrific older actors show up, making it an action-packed Cannonball Run for the elder thespian. Brian Cox has fun with a thick Russian accent, Richard Dreyfuss uses his trademark shriek to great effect as a sleazeball, and Ernest Borgnine (!!) is having so much fun simply being in a film that you can’t help but smile when he’s on the screen. (Younger actor Karl Urban doesn’t merely rely on his trademark intensity, creating a more complex adversary than these films normally sport.) Robert Schwentke, after making the very effective romantic weepie The Time Traveler’s Wife, clearly has a strong understanding of what an audience wants across multiple genres. Red has our favorite old actors having a blast and blowing up young idiots who dare underestimate them. It’s popcorn fare, but it’s the rare film that I leave hoping for a sequel. Bring Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, and Shirley MacLaine in on the action! I believe a franchise for aging actors in an action film setting would, ironically, never get old.