Study the above image for a few seconds. Does it make you:
a) Stir with excitement, seeing aging stars carrying the gun and kicking ass?
b) Feel depressed, seeing aging stars carrying the gun and kicking ass?
c) Sigh in confirmation that that are no good roles for actors over 50 in
d) Immediately want to close this window and click on The Huffington Post?
On a night not too long ago, I was in the mood for a bit of action and old school wisecracking, something like an 80s Schwarzenneger or Roger Moore 007 flick. 2010's RED put its aging stars front and center in the advertising to entice folks who haven't exactly embraced latter day action stars like Jason Statham and Duane Johnson or the hyperkinetic, migraine inducing spectacles they drive and shoot their way through. Viewers weaned on the original DIE HARD.
Packages like RED featuring actors of a certain age in harm's way are not new. I think on previous pictures like TOUGH GUYS (1987) which featured Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as just sprung from the joint infamous bank robbers who just can't adjust to life in 1980s and fall into their old ways. There was also ORIGINAL GANGSTAS, a throwback to the good old days of blaxploitation, with veterans Fred Williamson and Pam Grier. Both movies had good ideas that fizzled in execution and were mostly disappointments, though they did show that the geezers still had some fire in 'em. The EXPENDABLES films have certainly banked on this.
RED is based on a series of DC Comics, and the movie makes no effort to transcend that. If anything, the film tries too hard to be cartoonish and juvenile. The title is an acronym that refers to main character Frank Moses (Bruce Willis, in good form), a former black ops agent for the CIA, as "RETIRED, EXTREMELY DANGEROUS". We learn this after Moses' file is retrieved from a secret vault managed by none other than Ernest Borgnine. His cameo is there for the really old school action buffs, I assume.
Moses is back in action after a team of assassins invade his quiet suburban home in the middle of the night somewhere in Ohio. It's just as well, as Frank had become a bit zombified in his life of leisure. The only bright spot in his life: his telephone conversations with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker, underused) a customer service agent for the company that sends out his pension checks. There's an easy rapport. Frank enjoys their exchanges so much that he rips each check as an excuse to call her to send another. They make vague plans to meet.
Frank successfully dispatches each of the ambush team and hightails it to, yes, Sarah's apartment in Kansas City. She's understandably startled to see him and is skeptical when she's told her life is in danger. Frank kidnaps and drags her from New Orleans to NYC to Pensacola to Chicago and points in between. In pursuit is a relentless young agent named Cooper (Karl Urban) who refers to Moses as "Grandpa", even after the 50+ retiree kicks his butt into the next county in a protracted scene (set to Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle", no less).
In each town, Frank seeks out his old cronies to help discover why he was targeted: his mentor Joe (Morgan Freeman), an ex-KGBer Ivan (Brian Cox), ex-Agent and conspiracy nut Marvin (John Malkovich, mugging in nearly every scene), and Victoria (Helen Mirren), another agent who now arranges flowers but still trots out her rifle part time. Richard Dreyfuss also turns up as Dunning, a high-level criminal who provides the answers. It's too tiresome to explain the (albeit not very complicated) plot, honestly, and if you waste too many neurons trying to figure it all out, you've missed the point.
As in other films of this ilk, there comes a moment when the vets complain of how soft the new school is. After a firefight with various agents, Marvin laments, "I remember when the Secret Service were tougher." I guess moments like these are further appeals to the older members of the audience, an attempt to infuse some perspective in the mayhem.
The elements are there for good, dumb, escapist fun, and to some degree it succeeds, but I wish there were less "dumb". The action scenes are just so ridiculous, such as when Malkovich and a lady agent have a standoff, the bullet from his single handgun shredding her rocket launcher projectile. Malkovich is particularly disappointing in RED, a blown opportunity to inject his unique eccentricity into a potentially interesting character. He rather hunches about, evoking memories of Murdoch from The A-Team with liberal dashes of Jerry Lewis. Even his turn in the equally dumb CON-AIR was more nuanced. But I guess his broad performance suits the tone.
I was expecting something a bit wittier, less lowbrow. But RED is nicely shot by Florian Ballhaus, son of famed cinematographer Michael. And it is a gas to see all of these stars together, playing well off of each other. The screenplay is nonsensical but had the tone been right, RED might've been something more than fast food. It's a sure bet I'll pass on the sequel.