The latest Hollywood movie to find its inspirations in a comic book series, Red is also the latest such film to provide a far from faithful interpretation of its source material. The comic book series created by writer Warren Ellis and artist Cully Hamner was a three issue mini-series with a rather serious tone that supposedly, if adapted entirely faithfully for the big screen, would come in at about fifteen minutes in length.
The movie, on the other hand, runs 1 hour 50 minutes long and is an action comedy that doesn’t taking itself seriously in any way or form. The reasons behind the changes are simply the need to generate more material than the comic itself actually constituted, among the changes being the introduction of new characters, but with so much that is different between the film and its comic book inspiration, can it really be considered an adaptation at all? Regardless of how faithful it is to its inspiration, though, this is a film with considerable firepower (both literally and figuratively), boasting a very impressive and somewhat unlikely ensemble of big name actors from the older generations (and a few younger ones as well) and a director with a solid, although far from spectacular, track record including such as films as 2005’s Flightplan and 2009’s The Time Traveller’s Wife – Robert Schwentke. This is a certainly a film with strong credentials but surprisingly every major studio passed on making it, even Warner Bros Pictures who own DC Comics – the company that released the comic itself – before the film finally got made by Summit Entertainment. Perhaps they didn’t think that an action movie whose cast predominantly consists of older actors would sell. The tagline for Red reads “Still Armed. Still Dangerous. Still Got It.” And, based on the strong performance of the film at the US box office, it certainly seems that the likes of Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren do still have it. But, as the trailer makes the film appear, is Red just The Losers with old people?
Retired CIA black-ops agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) now leads a quiet life, but can’t quite come to terms with such a dull existence, the only joy in his life coming from his telephone friendship with the lonely and frustrated Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker). However, excitement is in store when he finds himself being targeted for assassination and discovers that his friendship with Sarah has made her a target as well. Effectively kidnapping a reluctant Sarah, Frank sets about trying to find who is out to kill them, in the process reassembling his old team of CIA agents – cunning Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), crazy Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) and home-maker/assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren) – and enlisting the aid of an old enemy turned ally in the form of retired Russian agent Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox). Together, they must break into top secret CIA headquarters to find out who is trying to kill them and what they discover is something far bigger than they could have imagined – the biggest of government conspiracies involving corrupt corporate boss Alexander Dunning (Richard Dreyfuss), Robert Stanton (Julian McMahon), the US Vice President with a really dark secret and William Cooper (Karl Urban), an honest CIA agent caught in the middle. The team may be retired but being ‘RED’ – Retired and Extremely Dangerous – they know how to hit the CIA where it hurts!
Just like this year’s The Losers – another DC comics adaptation about a black-ops team taking on the CIA – Red is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There is an air of silliness within much of what goes on, even as the storyline deals with some potentially dark themes, and its ability to simply be a fun movie without delving too much in the more serious aspects of the plot make for a film that is very fun viewing. Yet, the presence of serious themes that go unexplored also prove to be a slight hindrance. The plot of The Losers was ridiculous enough for us not to care about any deeper aspects of the plot but here this is not so much the case, the storyline often feeling underdeveloped, even with numerous twists and double crosses, and, perhaps more importantly, the film is nowhere near as fun as it is clearly trying to be. The film does indeed prove to be funny but it rarely achieves laugh out loud moments, the humour more likely to raise slight giggles than anything that will split your sides or perhaps even just make you laugh on the inside. Considering how sophisticated the cast is, the humour is also surprisingly unsophisticated. There is no wit on display on here, the kind of thing that could really give the film an edge, with the humour instead coming courtesy of rather silly or improbable situations that the principal characters find themselves in – Marvin taking out a rocket with just a bullet for instance – and scenes that see them wearing silly looking uniforms, donning ridiculous camouflage or carrying around a soft toy pig. The action sequences often prove amusing but in terms of delivering thrills they largely fail to really pop, being more okay than kick ass. This isn’t to say that they don’t entertain but they certainly don’t stand out in any memorable way either. The film also lacks the visual flourishes that can often be found in comic book based movies. There are some distinctive visuals every now and then – the use of postcards to illustrate a change in location is a different touch and one that demonstrates excellent editing work and a zoom in to the headquarters of the CIA also looks very good – but by and large this is a film that fails to offer anything particularly stylish in terms of its visuals. On the acting front, the film does not boast the best performances of any of its cast members but it is clear that they all had a lot of fun making the film and the principal players all entertain, proving quite adept at comedy. Bruce Willis is ample as the hard on the outside but soft on the inside Frank and his rather unlikely love interest is ably played by Mary-Louise Parker, who may not convince in her role but definitely amuses with a performances that can be best characterised as wacky. John Malkovich does not-quite-right-in-the-head very well and here he looks and acts appropriately crazy, both being entirely believable as a character who is borderline insane and thoroughly entertaining for it as well. As for the other main players, Morgan Freeman feels underused with surprisingly little screen time but nonetheless proves very enjoyable in his role, Helen Mirren brings real class to the ensemble and Brian Cox is solid, doing a decent Russian accent. A cameo appearance by Hollywood veteran Ernest Borgnine as Henry, the CIA’s records keeper, is also very enjoyable – he isn’t given a lot to do but at 93 years old he is still a very spry gentleman and his appearance here is a very welcome one. Other cast members, however, are underwhelming with Karl Urban being wasted in a rather pedestrian role and the likes of Richard Dreyfuss and Julian McMahon barely registering at all, although this is due to the limited presence of their characters in the story rather than anything to do with the performances of either actor. All in all, however, the acting is solid and entertaining, certainly enough so to overlook a few shortcomings here and there. So, Red is an enjoyable but not wholly memorable action comedy that undoubtedly provides an entertaining and worthy visit to the cinema but will not fully satisfy die hard action or comedy fans. If nothing else, see it for Helen Mirren. Face it, where else can you see Dame Helen Mirren firing a giant machine gun?
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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