There seems to be a cultural obsession these days with nostalgia and things from the past. There are films such as The Expendables, which celebrates action films of the 1980s and uses actors who were in their prime back then as cast members. There are also the endless remakes of, and sequels to, every movie, TV show and children’s toy that were popular 20 years ago. Why this fetishizing of our past? Do we just have no new ideas today? Perhaps it is also because Bruce Willis (and Dame Helen Mirren, for that matter) are still more believable as the leads in an action film than most young actors today. At any rate, the new action-comedy RED (which stands for “retired, extremely dangerous”) ably uses older actors (and old storylines) to tell an exciting and playful, if familiar, story.
Frank Moses (Willis) is a former CIA super spy, now retired to beautiful suburban Cleveland. Frank misses the excitement of his former career, and mindlessly grinds his way through his daily routine. Virtually the only thing he has going on in his life is the phone flirtation he has developed with Sarah Ross (Weeds’ Mary-Louise Parker), who works in the government office from which he receives his pension checks.
Frank regains some of the excitement he’s been missing when a hit squad breaks into his house in the middle of the night and tries to kill him. After turning the tables on his would-be assassins and going on the run, Frank realizes that all the phone calls he has had with Sarah will make her a target, too, so he decides to kidnap her in order to keep her safe. Sarah is horrified at first, of course, but soon, with bullets whizzing past her head, she comes to realize that Frank is telling the truth.
In an effort to figure out what is going on and why, Frank tracks down some of his old colleagues, most of whom are as bored as he is. There’s Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), an 80-year-old man living in a retirement home. Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) is obsessive and paranoid, living in a bunker in the Florida swamp to escape the eyes of Big Brother. Former assassin Victoria (Mirren) is now running a charming bed and breakfast, though she performs the occasional contract killing when she gets bored. And Ivan (Brian Cox) is Frank’s former counterpart on the Russian side. The two formerly were deadly adversaries, but over time their hatred has mellowed into camaraderie, and the two feel like former athletes trading war stories.
The group eventually realizes that everything goes back to a mission they were all a part of in the early ’80s. Some people in very high places are determined to make sure that everyone who knows what happened on that mission is silenced, but Frank and his friends don’t want to let that happen.
The film was directed by Robert Schwentke, whose work until now, such as the Jodie Foster vehicle Flightplan, has been solid but largely unmemorable. Here, he proves he has a deft hand with both action and comedy. The film’s many action sequences are well-staged, both packing a wallop and directed so that we can tell what is going on, but what is most impressive is how well the action and comedy are melded together.
Most of this is due to the excellent cast. The actors are all obviously having a lot of fun playing this ridiculous material. Schwentke sets the breezy, playful tone, and the actors match it. The film has room for plenty of different styles of play, as it features both Mirren being super cool as she fires a .50 caliber machine gun, and Malkovich running down the street, screaming, with a bomb strapped to his chest. Malkovich in particular steals almost every scene he’s in, but the other actors give him a run for his money.
These fun performances also help us overlook some of the more familiar aspects of the script, adapted from Warren Ellis’ comic book by Jon and Erich Hoeber. There have been a lot of movies about a retired agent or cop being drawn back into his former life, and RED doesn’t do a whole lot of updating to the idea, but in the hands of these actors it feels new.
Frank and Sarah’s relationship, that of a regular girl being kidnapped by a spy in order to save her from bad guys, is also a little familiar, but redeemed by the charm of the actors. It’s similar to the one had by Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz’s characters in Knight and Day, if rather less creepy and insane. Parker and Willis have good chemistry together, and their flirtation scenes at the beginning of the film are charming. And Sarah isn’t portrayed as being just a generic damsel in distress. She has some rough edges, and Parker ably portrays her as a little cynical and world-weary, but also caught up in the danger and romance of the situation.
The movie’s plot may dissolve into mush a little bit toward the end, but the people behind RED knew what to emphasize to make the film memorable. The film’s plot may not feel particularly fresh, but the actors’ performances are always quirky and alive, and make the movie an exciting, relentlessly funny experience.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.