Red (2010)

Director: Robert Schwentke

Starring: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Mary-Louise Parker, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, Julian McMahon

You can’t keep a good action hero down. In recent years, that’s truly been the case, as actors like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liam Neeson, and Bruce Willis (most of which appear together in the “Expendables” series of films) are all finding that getting older has not prevented them from playing the same kinds of tough guy roles that normally would go to men half their age. Willis especially has been keeping busy, milking the “Die Hard” franchise for every last cent, as well as featuring in the “G.I. Joe” reboot alongside Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, “Sin City” and its long-belated sequel (due out this time next month), and of course 2010’s “RED.”

The title of the film refers not to the color, but is an acronym for “Retired and Extremely Dangerous.” Frank Moses (Willis) might not look it, judging by the quiet and lonely life he has chosen for himself these days, but he was a black ops CIA agent in his youth. These days, the most exciting part of his day is the long-distance phone conversations he has with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), who works for the Kansas City pension office that sends Frank his checks. Frank tears up those pieces of paper just so he’ll have excuses to call her, sometimes just to talk about the plant she sent him. Sarah hates her job, and would love nothing more than to have a little excitement in her life. Her wish is about to be granted, although in a way that a little too closely resembles the romance/espionage novels she’s been reading. After a hit squad tries and fails to kill Frank, he heads for Kansas City, grabs Sarah for her own protection and rounds up the old gang, which includes conspiracy theorist Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), ex-MI6 agent Victoria Winslow (Helen Mirren), and Frank’s mentor, Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman).

Their goal is to find out who wants the members of a secret 1981 mission in Guatemala dead and who on that list might still be left alive. Standing in the team’s way is CIA agent William Cooper (Karl Urban). He’s a pretty tough customer, himself, though not always smart enough to know when he’s being played. Hardly mastermind material… more of a pawn, really. Eventually, the answers they find will lead to an assassination attempt on the Vice President of the United States… perpetrated by our heroes!

Although a fairly standard spy movie plot in the long-run, “RED” does keep the audience guessing throughout. Unless you’re paying strict attention to everything that everyone says, you may not figure out who the real bad guy is until the big reveal.  Based on a three-issue miniseries published by DC Comics in 2003 and 2004, “RED” is very fantastical, but also very balanced. It handles moments of hilarity just as easily as it does its most serious scenes of violence. John Malkovich’s over-the-top performance as Marvin steals much of the laughter, as does Mary-Louise Parker (whose comic timing reminds me why I absolutely loved the TV series “Weeds”). On the flipside, the fight between Bruce Willis and Karl Urban inside CIA Headquarters, though not nearly as dragged out as it ought to have been, is for me one of the most brutal on-screen fight sequences (not including boxing or martial arts movies) since Sean Connery battled Robert Shaw on a train in 1963’s “From Russia With Love.”

In 2013, a sequel to “RED” arrived… and it’s a good thing, too. These characters are too much fun to leave them with only one movie. A sequel means more zaniness from Malkovich, more wide-eyed curiosity from Parker and more machismo from Willis, not to mention more scenes of Helen Mirren and her big… guns. (Get your minds out of the gutter!) The question is, how much more mileage have they got left in them? Also, there is the age-old idea that sequels are inferior to the original, which action films and comedies have an especially hard time proving false. With the promise of new additions like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins, I’d say it’s worth the risk. It sure beats sitting around watching the daisies grow.

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