(First published in The Bison student newspaper Fall 2020)
“RED” is one crazy car ride of an adventure story.
For viewers willing to wait out the cringy first 20-or-so minutes, the 2010 release based on a DC Comics series offers a journey of upbeat heroic antics.
Titled after the acronym “Retired, Extremely Dangerous,” the film’s plot is everything its title suggests, with an enchanting twist. Directed by Robert Schwentke, “RED” opens with the romantic pursuits of retired CIA operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), whose life is quickly thrown into chaos as his past comes back to haunt him.
The initial romance is disrupted by situations that force Moses to kidnap the lovely, capable but naïve Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) in order to protect her.
Moses’ motives are genuine – trying to keep her safe from CIA agent William Cooper (Karl Urban) who has been sent to kill Moses and those he cares about.
To be sure, Ross is no true victim of a heinous crime and Parker’s portrayal of her is quite masterful – especially in later scenes – but the decision to use the kidnapping of a female character for comedic purposes is a bit… unsettling.
Follow that with Moses’ old CIA buddy Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) asking his nurse to adjust a TV just so she’ll bend over in front of him, and the film’s opening sequence leaves viewers wondering what exactly it intends to suggest about its female characters.
However, despite the shaky start, “RED” finds its feet fairly quickly.
Parker and Willis’ expert comedic interpretations provide the film with both levity and momentum.
As their characters travel across the United States – denoted by a recurring postcard motif at each location change – they begin to unravel who it was that painted a target on Moses’ back in the first place.
On the journey, they meet various former acquaintances of Moses’ from his CIA days, many of whom have also retired, and it is this ensemble that brings the film to full force.
Played by a series of Hollywood “A-listers,” these friends and foes are a breath of fresh air in a genre that is all too often dominated by young, hyper-athletic heartthrobs.
This film knows exactly how ludicrous pitting a team of retired intelligence agents against their own former organization is; it’s simply too busy being fabulous to care.
If anyone can get away with it, it’s Schwentke’s brilliant, “A-list” cast.
Firstly, there’s Morgan Freeman’s appearance as a mentor and fellow former agent.
Then John Malkovich’s portrayal of the paranoid, probably PTSD suffering, conspiracy theory believing, former secret agent Marvin Boggs gains credibility through sheer commitment, along with a healthy dose of playfulness.
Arms dealer Alexander Dunning (Richard Dreyfuss) rocks the simple rule: my interests first, with a confusing level of confidence.
Frenemy Ivan Simonov (Brian Cox) comes to life as a vodka-drinking Russian intelligence agent with a soft heart.
Surprisingly for a film that started so shakily on the gender-role front, the unexpected star of the film is Helen Mirren – whose portrayal of former sharpshooting special agent Victoria’s bravery, spunk and downright formidableness is near unparalleled.
Far from cliched, Mirren’s character is everything that could be asked for: confident, skilled, physically masterful and romantic without being reduced to only that.
For Victoria, Moses and their ragtag team of retired operatives, age is no obstacle – it’s hardly even worth mention.
“RED” isn’t seeking to be earth-shatteringly deep.
Rather, the film is a whole-hearted celebration of the action film capabilities of an older generation of actors than those typically gracing the genre.
It’s well worth a watch – or a re-watch – for the stellar acting alone. Just don’t take it too seriously.