Early on in action blockbuster RED, loosely adapted from a Warren Ellis graphic novel, I came to a realisation: Brian Cox is perhaps the least convincing Russian ever.
The British veteran of stage and screen is known for his commanding Scottish lilt, rather than a mastery of accents. And with good reason, it turns out. His ageing KGB agent, Ivan Simanov, is as stereotypical as they come. It takes mere moments for the silk-scarfed Cox to break out a bottle of “wodka” and fill two glasses.
He passes a tumbler to Bruce Willis, starring as ex-CIA agent, Frank Moses. In conversation with this pastiche, Willis does the near impossible, managing to make a rehash of a role he’s played a thousand times before seem even less convincing than Cox’s comedy Russian.
Bruce is moving in the opposite direction to his co-stars. As if he’d got on the wrong escalator.
The film, which follows a team of retired spies hunted down by their corrupt government, is an action romp. Most of the big name cast – Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren – are in step with this tone. How seriously can you take a Dame with a sniper rifle or a grenade launcher in a stuffed pig? In this context, Cox’s characterisation is pitch-perfect cheekiness.
It’s all great fun, but no one told grumpy Bruce, who insists on mining the gruff tough man schtick he’s made his own since Die Hard. On the rare occasions he’s called upon to crack a joke, he seems physically uncomfortable.
In the wake of comments made by Kevin Smith after Cop Out flopped at the box office, it’s easier to understand why Willis is so at odds with the jovial tone of the film. The outspoken helmer described trying to direct Willis as “soul crushing.” In RED, too, Bruce seems to be ploughing his own furrow, oblivious to the fun his colleagues are having around him.
Director Robert Schwentke is also a little confused about his film’s tone. Early on, a lonely Moses finds his only pleasure from phone conversations with government helpdesk operative, Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker). A failed assassination attempts forces Frank to seek out his only companion, for fear that she will become a target too.
Parker is the only actor in RED who really masters the film’s topsy-turvy mood. Her character is believable, expressive, and, when required, very silly. It’s tough, though, with Schwentke throwing curve balls at her attempts to appear genuine.
While Moses compassionately kidnaps an unwilling Ross, Parker does a good job of being distressed. Perhaps her director thought this was too much of a downer. At least that would explain the bouncy melody he layers under the scene, which totally fails to mesh with any non-existent lightheartedness.
Thankfully, as the minutes tick by, the ensemble assemble and Willis slides comfortably into full-on action mode. The retirees, all former secret agents, begin a duel of wits and explosives with up and coming CIA operative, William Cooper (Karl Urban). No one seems to be trying very hard, but, Willis aside, it looks like they’re having a great time. It’s good fun watching them, too, whether it be a neurotic Malkovich accosting random passers-by or Cox and Mirren’s steamy love affair.
Morgan Freeman even gets a chance to reuse the excellent Nelson Mandela impression he crafted for Invictus. Decked out in African military regalia, he poses as a foreign general for a meeting with Richard Dreyfuss. Hamming it up as an evil business magnate, Dreyfuss is yet another actor who understands RED’s timbre. Sneering the potentially quotable, “I’m the baaaad guy,” while duct-taped to a chair, is evidence of the film’s total lack of pretension. Then Morgan Freeman punches him in the face.
The premise for RED sounds like fantastic fun. Gather together a gaggle of Hollywood vets, arm them to the teeth, and let them loose. For seventy percent of the film that’s exactly what happens, but when the camera aims its lens at Bruce’s wobbly attempts at serious acting, RED becomes glaringly uneven. These passages are not so poor that they completely overshadow the high octane madness, but they do devalue it. The long stretches of popcorn shootery are well worth waiting for. It’s just a shame we have to wait for them at all.
The picture quality is as sharp as you would expect from a modern action Blu-ray, so you can see every wrinkle in glorious Technicolor.
If two hours of crisp visuals aren’t enough to satiate your gluttony, you could watch the batch of extended and deleted scenes. Except, that would be a complete waste of time.
More worth your while are the gamut of behind-the-scenes interviews and features that pop up as you watch the film with the ‘Access: Red’ setting selected. You can hear what Helen Mirren thought about grasping a machine gun and listen to the actor’s talk disingenuously about how much they love each other.
In between each video clip, a commentary track from former CIA agent, Robert Baer, plays. It’s genuinely engrossing to hear him reminisce about covert operations involving latex masks and secret files. Turning off the video clips reveals the complete audio, which I would highly recommend.
RED is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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