It’s not that Red (Summit Entertainment; 111 minutes; PG-13; widescreen; 2010) lacks a similar fantasy bent, although it sure has more grown-ups in the cast with whom the mature audience can identify. Willis, who chipped in a momentary spoof of his granitefaced badass he-man in The Expendables, provides more in the way of low-key comedy as Red’s stoic leading man: former CIA agent Frank Moses, who had his license to kill revoked upon his retirement and now lives an ultra-quiet existence in suburbia. His only human connection is with occasional phone calls to Sarah (Weeds’ Mary-Louise Parker), a clerk at a federal pension office in Kansas City, as they bond over goofy things such as avocados and romance novels.
Sarah yearns for excitement and lonely Frank could provide some relief--especially since he is inexplicably targeted for assassination by agency mercenaries, who transform Frank’s suburban dwelling into a shooting gallery during a nighttime raid. Frank, classified as RED or “Retired, Extremely Dangerous,” takes it on the lam with Sarah, as he quickly assembles a squad of previous pals (including Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren), a Russian frenemy (Brian Cox) and an all-purpose paranoid loose cannon (John Malkovich) to help figure out why the CIA wants him dead. Also on the fringes: Rebecca Pidgeon in her usual ice-queen persona as an agency higher-up; Karl Urban as Cooper, the operative assigned to nail Frank; the aforementioned Borgnine as the grizzled keeper of covert records; and Richard Dreyfuss in a late-in-the-game top-secret key role.
Red’s premise is expanded from a DC Comics graphic novel series from author Warren Ellis and artist Cully Hamner, and director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Flightplan) wisely accentuates those origins. Schwentke’s amped-up color scheme and flashy action sequences give Red the look of various comic-book panels coming to life, such as the brightly sardonic touch of using postcards of American locales (a reference to Sarah’s cluttered workspace) as visual segues whenever the movie and its characters zigzag from one American city to the next. The visceral macho pow, however, also gets satirized occasionally, such as the movie’s best special-effects shot that allows Willis’ Frank to nonchalantly step out of the still-spinning police car he has just stolen (it’s spinning because Cooper’s vehicle has collided with it while in hot pursuit) and then walk down a New Orleans street as his pistols start blasting away.
There’s a comic-book cynicism at work here, along with a healthy distrust of the world’s espionage systems; at one point, Cox’s Russkie opines about the Cold War, “I miss the old days. I haven’t killed anyone in years.” Yet what’s most unexpected is Red’s often charming romantic-comedy aspects. Willis and Parker maintain a playful chemistry throughout, while the movie’s British acting royalty provides even more surprises. Who would have thought that Mirren would be sexy even when handling a machine gun or that Cox could cut a roguishly dapper love interest?
And Malkovich is a hoot, particularly during a wild shootout involving a bazookatoting hit lady in an Alabama airport when he asks Willis’ Frank the flustered question, “Now can I kill her?” Red is a happy, breezy lark about skewed loyalties, political skeletons in the closet and, of course, the old-school art of a veteran cast getting away with murder.
Red earned more than $90 million at the nation’s box office for Summit, a company mostly concerned with the Twilight franchise (one exhibitor, however, snarkily confided, “Imagine how much more it could have made if it was released by a different studio.”), and a sequel is in the planning stages. Meanwhile, Summit Entertainment Home Video’s DVD release is doing quite well on the rental and retail shelves. It’s billed as a “special edition,” but the usual extras make appearances, such as 29 minutes’ worth of behind-the-scenes snippets and nine minutes of deleted and extended scenes, some with literal seconds restored that were shaved off the final print. There’s a pop-up trivia gizmo that can be activated, and the six-minute “CIA Exposed” vignette, dealing with the batch of agency secrets that were revealed in 2007 (the CIA’s LSD experiments form the basis for the Malkovich character), is handled with the type of low-rent animation that you’d find in an ancient Encyclopedia Brittanica school film.
The best bonus is the commentary track that is not handled by the expected cast and crew, but rather the movie’s spymaster consultant: former field officer Robert Baer, who was with the CIA for 21 years until his retirement in 1997. From the get-go he’s a fount of information regarding the undercover business, as Baer recalls his exit was connected to a failed assassination attempt on Saddam Hussein: “I figured when I got off the airplane and was met by the FBI, investigating me for attempted murder. . . you know, when your employer is trying to put you in jail, it’s time to go.”
Baer points out a few discrepancies in which the filmmakers had to take cinematic license, but still proclaims that Red gets much right, such as the disdainful treatment of retired agents by the CIA’s current crop of young guns, and even the film’s on-screen arsenal (“The preferred weapon of spooks is an H&K MP-5, a grenade launcher which doesn’t jam up as much.”). By the way, Baer says that the CIA doesn’t use the acronym RED, but how do we know that might be one secret he is unable to reveal?