Friends, the time has come. Hollywood movie moguls have been fumbling around in the comic book intellectual property swag bag for some time, but it hasn’t been until now that they have hit upon a thorny, nasty work from super-fungal mega-writer Warren Ellis. However, instead of adapting one his demented masterworks that perform anarchic castration on genre conventions, such as Transmetropolitan, The Authority or Planetary, the powers that be have smiled kindly on RED, his collaboration with Cully Hamner, which is an action caper with a twist.
The twist is probably what sold the producers (Mark Vahradian and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, two dudes behind Transformers) on the idea. It’s a pretty concise concept: RED stands for ‘Retired, Extremely Dangerous’, and is a tag given to, as can be assumed, those that gather outside local post offices every Monday morning, clutching their pension book with the rest of them. Except these biddies and codgers are highly trained killing machines.
Ex-special forces operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) wakes up every morning at 6am on the dot. Then he sits in his living room, watching the clock tick through the endless empty minutes. The only respite from this gloom is the odd relationship he has with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), his pension services worker, with whom he shares awkward phone conversations. However, the past doesn’t stay dead for long, as Frank becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that goes deep, all the way beyond his old Pentagon employers, and up towards the White House. While dodging groups of young assassin recruits, and the ambitious eyes of CIA Agent William Cooper (Karl Urban), Moses must reconnect with his former associates, and get to the bottom of this tangled mystery.
The plot, heavily revised from the original graphic novel, is of peripheral importance. Of course, the focus here is on the stellar cast, from Willis on down to Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss and Ernest Borgnine. Apart from Willis, who plays Moses as a rather sedate, wisecrack-less riff on John McClane, all involved are having the time of their lives, and this is RED‘s key attraction. There’s particular pleasure to be had in Malkovich’s LSD-frazzled paranoid, whose erratic behaviour is delivered with unhinged glee, Cox’s pantomimically-accented turn as a velvet-clad, nostalgic former Soviet (“I haven’t killed anyone in years!”) or Mirren’s prim wetwork specialist (“I kill people, dear,” she mews).
Much of the pre-release anticipation revolved around this collision of action movie genre trappings and Academy Award-nominated gravitas. What is interesting is that these actors are having fun, some in a style you might not have seen before. Mirren is a joy to watch because she is indulging in her comic side, rarely explored in film (although traumatic memories of Teaching Mrs Tingle come to mind). That this manifests as her staring down the barrel of a sniper rifle is only part of the deal. In an industry which both maintains an obsession with bright young things, and discourages retirement, it is great to see an older cast act their age, yet not conform to typical Hollywood approaches to life over 50.
It is just a shame that, while the cast is on top form, the team of writers Jon and Erich Hoeber (Whiteout), and director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Flightplan), don’t match their example. This is a standard, clichéd action thriller with all of the danger sucked out of it. Likewise, apart from retirement ennui and a couple of doe-eyed moments of memory dwelling, it doesn’t tackle the age of its characters head on. Moses barely works up a sweat when kicking ass, and the young pups doing his job nowadays give him little trouble. They’re never outmoded, outgunned or outpaced.
Instead, extra dimension comes from a jarring pseudo-romcom vibe, provided by Moses’ developing relationship with Sarah, who is brought along on the mission in order to act stunned by everything she witnesses (nearly all her lines are a variation on ‘this is so cool!’ or ‘awesome!’). It’s more annoying than charming, taking time away from character development in favour of a rather simple romantic arc.
It leaves RED a little hollow, with the work of an entirely enjoyable cast let down by a film that has neither the humour nor the heart to make the characters stick, or the action set pieces to make this a mature, wry alternative to The Expendables.