RED: Looking Back at the Strangest Comic Adaptation Ever

With the release of RED 2 upon us, it's time to look back at how this crazy onscreen retirement home for awesomeness came to be.

She carefully places the dead body in the bathtub like she’s preparing a delicately precise flower arrangement. Having done this a thousand times before, she does not even notice the body slowly dissolving in the hydriodic acid. “It’s important to enjoy life while you still can,” she smirks into her cell phone, simultaneously pouring the rest of the acid into the puss of melting tissue. It’s Dame Helen Mirren doing what she loves in the trailer for RED 2. And Lord, do we love seeing her do it. With this weekend’s release of RED 2 almost upon us, it seems like a perfect time to look at the humble roots which launched the most unlikely of franchises. A sort of action star version of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its love letter to beloved personalities aging gracefully, RED has become synonymous with a whacky cast of middle-aged or greater actors kicking the youngins’ ass all over a globe trotting adventure. There’s Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, the aforementioned Mirren and, depending on the installment, Morgan Freeman, Brian Cox and Sir Anthony Hopkins as well. They even let Mary-Louise Parker tag along as the surrogate for anyone under 50. Yet, before Willis smashed Karl Urban’s head into a TV to the gentle underscore of Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle,” RED was a limited run comic book. And from that inception, it is one of the most curious graphic novel adaptations to date. Created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, Red is anything but funny. There is a dark sense of humor to the proceedings, but it’s the type usually found in men who have been sitting on death row for a decade. As the film version approached, spin-offs were crafted to more align with the movie’s expanded cast and tone, but the original three-chapter plot is where the concept went through its most pure genesis and features the most striking comparison.
 Paul Moses is indeed a retired hitman for the CIA, but besides looking closer to what an elderly, demented James Carville may one day resemble, as opposed to the roguish 50-something Bruce Willis, there is very little he shares in common with his cinematic counterpart. He is not trying to connect to the world by tele-flirting with a comely Pensions employee in Kansas City, though he does make a lone weekly contact to a CIA secretary for regular updates. Otherwise, he lives on the outskirts from humanity and as far away from suburbia or neighbors as conceivably possible. He reads, he tends to his garden and he waits to die. Unfortunately for Langley, a new politically appointed CIA (like ALL OF THEM) turns out to be a thin-skinned reactionary hell bent on serving the agenda’s need to “build a new world order.” So, when he finds out what Moses once did in the secretive R-room vaults, he puts out a hit on the ex-spook. But what he really winds up doing is declaring war on the most deadly man in the world. This is not a political cover-up of some singular politician’s atrocity; it’s a conspiracy of American world building throughout the whole of the 20th century. It is never quite clear what Paul did in the name of American interests that sent this weak-kneed bureaucrat reeling, but a montage late in the series indicates a number of atrocities. According to Warren Ellis, Paul Moses, at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency and the supposed greater good, assassinated John F. Kennedy, civil rights leaders and a slew of unknown foreign politicians. At his own admission, he’s murdered more women than he can count, but drew the line at children. That small distinction does little to dissuade the other characters, or well-adjusted readers, from recognizing Paul as a monster. But as Moses tells Director Michael Beesley, he is the monster America made him to be. The graphic novel Red is a shockingly violent and conspiratorial book. I do not know of its creators’ real-life politics, but this story drips with libertarian disdain for government and 21st century masculinity. It romanticizes a past where “men were men,” but dreads both what America once did in those post-WWII decades and simultaneously fearing an ominous NOW right out of the online rants of Alex Jones. It is not a yuck-fest. Later this year, another graphic novel series is getting its second cinematic treatment as well. Kick-Ass 2, just judging from the trailers, will be excessively violent. But at its R-rating, it still is less extreme than the RED source material. The Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. books those films are based on are grossly brutal, but they are still off-color comedies and satires of a genre. Red is a grotesque condemnation of American foreign policy and makes it point by having our “hero” slaughter dozens of people in grisly detail. For these reasons, it is little surprise that Warner Bros. passed when producers suggested turning the property into a film. A nihilistic flick about an old man who has a death wish and kills most of the staff at Langley? Not exactly a whole lot of mass market appeal there.
 Yet by the time Summit Entertainment released RED in 2010 (a first for a DC comic book property), even the meaning of its title changed. In the book, “Red” is just a color-coded indicator of the status of an agent. When Paul Moses is retired and inactive, he is “green.” When he declares war on the CIA for trying to kill him in his home, he announces to Director Beesley that he is now “red.” But in the lighthearted action-comedy directed by Robert Schwentke of The Time Traveler’s Wife, it takes on a much less menacing meaning. All retired spooks in the CIA are R.E.D. They’re (R)etired and (E)xtremely (D)angerous. And this sets the tone for the rest of the film. Whacky, safe and PG-13 fun. But the real charm is it opens up the story for a lot more agents. There is still a retired Frank Moses—did Willis dislike the name Paul?—but he is now very much part of the world and tries to fit in with his suburban neighbors during Christmas and has connections to a retired conspiracy nut (Malkovich), who probably would have read something like Red and believed it to be historically accurate. He is also best buddies with the ever-charming Joe Matheson (Freeman), who is being treated for cancer down in New Orleans. Plus, he is even still chummy with a Maryland hostess who retired from the MI6 (Mirren), but not before shooting three bullets into the KGB love of her life (Cox), who still carries the scars like a badge of honor in romance.
 Paul is in a greater world of spies. It makes for a longer running time, but it also means we get to open the narrative up for a lot of beloved stars to smile and shoot guns in the Ocean’s Eleven of thriller-killer movies. Malkovich twitches and mugs with all the glee he once spread in those silly action films of the 1990s. Freeman brings all the star wattage he does to these types of supporting roles and Mirren is purely a delight. While Willis is fine, he treats the part like any other action role he has taken in the last ten years, but the English Dame has never looked happier onscreen than when she is aiming her sniper rifle right at the heart of a gun runner’s front door. She and most of the cast are having so much fun that it is almost excusable how thin the story is. Moses still visits the secretary he talked to on the phone, though now her name is Sarah (Parker) and he has come to save her from CIA operatives who want to kill her.  From that point on, it’s a romcom between the two with some bells and whistles that attempt to avoid the loaded politics of the graphic novel like a spymaster dangling over laser censors. In this version, his death is ordered by an arm’s dealer (Richard Dreyfuss joining the party) trying to supplant a weak-willed vice president into the White House. Moses didn’t commit any war crimes, the VP did and he will kill Moses to cover that up. But strangely, in its avoidance of those trip-wires, it does create an unintentional contrast between how some view the country and how mainstream America (or at least how commercial Hollywood thinks of mains street) wishes to see itself. Warren Ellis, an Englishman from Essex, tends to take a very negative view of the American Century in the book Red. The one silver lining is that Paul Moses is a MAN, unlike limp-wristed Director Beesley.
 Repeatedly Paul laments how childish men are in the 21st century and how they cannot take responsibility for their actions, hence the cover-up and attempted assassination of Paul himself. Paul and, perhaps by extension, Ellis seems to judge modern Americans as pathetic and unable to face reality. Beelsey doesn’t even understand what reality is until the last half-second before Paul puts two in the back of his head. But in the movie RED, the CIA reflection of Frank Moses is one William Cooper (Karl Urban). He hunts Frank down on CIA orders and is a hitman just as steely as the old folk having way more fun around him. He ends up joining Frank in taking Dreyfuss out and arresting the corrupt veep by the end of the story. As the man trained by the man Frank trained, he is a worthy successor. Like many Americans want to think of their country, he may have been duped into making the wrong mistakes in recent years (it should be noted that in the book, there is a caricature portrait of George W. Bush in Langley), but we he is inherently good and just as righteously strong as the generations before us. We will bounce back. By replacing Beesley with Cooper’s square jaw, filmmakers are most certainly assuring us that, at the very least. In the end, however, RED is best enjoyed as a spectacle of screen star favorites laying waste to all those in their path. The final sequence of the film is all the actors we love—save for Morgan Freeman who was forced to nobly sacrifice himself for all the white characters…again—sitting in a car and either romancing (Cox and Mirren, Willis and Parker) or happily watching like they stumbled upon something on the Animal Planet (Malkovich). We’re just happy that the band is together. Ultimately, this may be closer to the dippy romance novels Frank and Sarah read than their own literary counterparts.