A second viewing of that latter-day Bruce Willis rarity; one of his movies where seems to be making an effort and engaging with the material. I selected it as a double bill with this year’s sequel and, for all the common complaint that Red’s an agreeable movie that refuses to stick in the mind ten minutes after it’s over (I have to admit that, Malkovich aside, that was also true for me), it holds up to a repeat encounter.
This also makes it an even rarer of beasts; a decent movie based on a DC comics property (albeit a relatively obscure one). Appropriately and/or ironically, given said quality issues, Warners weren’t interested in making it and it eventually ended up with Summit Entertainment. The signs still weren’t necessarily all that positive. On screenplay duties were Jon and Erich Hoeber. Responsible for the entirely hokey Whiteout, they would go on to pen the abysmal Battleship. Robert Schwentke, a German director of some ability but not known for picking strong material, then signed on (Flightplan; he would compound this status with R.I.P.D. last summer, one of the biggest bombs of the year).
Most iffy was the casting of Bruce Willis in the lead, a star whose choices were haphazard at best and who appeared to have left his funny bone back in the ’90s. This was, after all, supposed to be an action comedy (again, a potential warning sign, as it diverged from the played-straight comic book). Willis occasionally delivered, but more commonly he plumped for impassive action roles, as if ashamed of the wisecracking persona that made his name. He continues on a trajectory that is nothing if not erratic; 2012 found him in a duo of decent movies (Looper and Moonrise Kingdom) only to piss all over the franchise that made his name in A Good Day to Die Hard. Fortunately, the rest of the casting details soon emerged and added a modicum of promise; Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Cox, Karl Urban, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine and Malkovich (replacing John C. Reilly).
“Retired, Extremely Dangerous” is the meaning of the acronym title. Whether it should be called RED or Red depends on whether you’re the movie poster or anyone else, it seems. The premise of a retired CIA agent, living in quiet Cleveland suburbia and livening up his day by calling the woman at the pensions department (Mary Louise Parker) might summon the unpleasant odour of the Bruce Willis in witness relocation movie The Whole Nine Yards (another surprise – minor – success which fostered a roundly ignored and unwanted sequel).
But Schwentke, who hadn’t tapped his comic muscles since 2003’s Eierdiebe, proves adept at both the action and the laughs. The opening attempted hit on Willis’ Frank Moses at his home, as he effortlessly turns the tables on his would-be assassins, is played fairly straight – as is a later messy fight between Moses and Cooper (Karl Urban), the CIA agent charged with hunting him down. But the interplay between such moments is quirky and self-conscious, and on occasion there is a full-blown comedy action bonanza; Malkovich’s Marvin facing down a bazooka with a bullet being the most excessive and surreal example (and then there’s the hilariously OTT shot from the trailer, as Willis effortlessly steps out of a skidding car while firing at Urban).
Sarah: Did you vacuum?
Frank: A little, yeah. It was messy.
If Willis is more relaxed and charming than he has been in years, the lion’s share of the laughs goes to Malkovich. I never would have expected Willis and Malkovich to have such good chemistry. Paranoid and moderately unhinged, but not without good reason (“As it turns out, he really was being given daily doses of LSD for eleven years”), the movie’s best conceit is that Marvin is right about everything (when he pulls a gun on an “innocent” woman, Frank calls him off; later the same woman reappears armed with aforementioned bazooka). His enthusiasm for returning to the field is disarmingly innocent (“I’m getting the pig!”) and the sight of Malkovich, disconsolate and uncertain, holding his prized plush porker by the tail, is one of the actor’s greatest onscreen moments ever. Up there with his Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons.
Marvin: I miss all this. I haven’t killed anyone in years.
Frank: That’s sad.
The screenplay dutifully caters for each of the assembled veteran actors, though. Half the fun is seeing the unlikely but surprisingly seamless marriage of styles. Mirren is wonderful as the ex-MI6 agent who misses the life of assassinations (“I do take the odd contract on the side”) and her rekindled romance with Brian Cox’s big-hearted Russian is rather sweet. Meanwhile, Dreyfuss has a lot of fun with his character’s unrepentant villainy. Parker has the comedienne skills to pull off her sub-Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone role (the office girl who dreams of adventure), but the writers only ever give her predictable character beats (her “I was hoping you’d have hair” to Frank shows Willis an amusingly self-deprecating light).
All this fun with the character interactions ensures the plot itself was always going to play out as something rather incidental. So, when the film has to steer itself back round to dealing with revelations and resolutions during the final third, it elicits little more than a shrug. There are a few ill-advised moments along the way (faking Freeman’s death, then actually killing him) but mostly Schwentke judges the playful, flippant tone right. His postcard transitions between locations aren’t terribly successful, and the choice of rock music on the soundtrack when an action sequence kicks in shows plain poor judgement (there’s no excuse that he is parodying ‘80s action movies).
Red had me hoping against the odds that Bruce had finally got his groove back, and his subsequent reteaming with Wes Anderson seemed to confirm it. Sadly, I have to conclude that on the whole he’s really not that much fun anymore. Just look at his litter of sadly undiscerning aging action turns in the last couple of years (Expendables 2, G.I. Joe 2, Die Hard 5). Occasionally he gets lucky (or perhaps he is on best behaviour, genuinely invigorated by working with an auteur; that would certainly explain why he caused Kevin Smith so much grief), so it’s worth savouring the slim pickings.