Reviewed at Fantastic Fest 2010.
Even before the opening credits roll for “Red,” it’s worth noting that for the first time a studio other than Warner Brothers has their logo in front of the one for DC Comics, an unusual sight for those aware of their corporate connection, but perhaps not an unwelcome one. For years, the two have made strange bedfellows, producing film adaptations from comics that have tried too hard – think “Superman Returns,” “Watchmen,” this summer’s wildly misguided “Jonah Hex” – to keep up with the success of longtime rival Marvel in the same realm or even Batman, the one superhero they were able to successfully reinvent twice for the big screen.
So to see the Summit logo in front of “Red” means that it’s the rare DC adaptation that wasn’t picked by Warner Brothers because it could be made, but because something other than corporate synergy dictated it should be made. The result is one of the breeziest comic book adaptations to date made by any studio, gliding on the laid-back charms of an all-star cast and a script from Jon and Erich Hoeber that never takes itself too seriously.
Adapted from Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer’s graphic novel of the same name, “Red” involves a group of retired CIA operatives who reunite when their involvement in a decades’ old coup in Guatemala comes back to haunt them as the members involved are outed by a New York Times reporter and start to get picked off one by one. The team is led by Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), who has gone from shooting terrorists to popping morning meds, a slave to a domestic routine that is only broken up by his weekly call to Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a desk jockey who wistfully talks to Frank about seeking out adventures in foreign locales like Chile.
She gets her wish, at least partially, when Frank finds out he’s being targeted for death and fearing someone has traced their phone calls, picks her up and hits the road to get the band back together, visiting the Green Springs nursing home for his oldest friend Joe (Morgan Freeman), the Pensacola swamp for the nutty Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), the Russian embassy in DC for the romantic Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox), and the idyllic Eagle’s Nest for the cool former MI6 member Victoria (Helen Mirren), which draws the attention of current CIA agent Cooper (Karl Urban).
Every location is marked onscreen by a postcard, which is appropriate since “Red” spends every minute of its running time screaming “wish you were here.” Clearly, the entire cast is enjoying themselves, with Willis and Freeman probably imagining this is what they signed up for when they did “Lucky Number Slevin” a few years back. Christophe Beck and David Holmes’ rococo score underlines the all the fun these “Retired and Extremely Dangerous” members are having with artillery.
Frank cannily stages a diversionary shootout in his home by placing bullets in a frying pan on a hot stove, Marvin doesn’t blink during a Mexican standoff when his enemy is armed with a missile launcher while he has a mere pistol, and when Victoria gets her hands on a Gatling gun… well, look out. Throw in the tough talk from Rebecca Pidgeon’s CIA chief who eggs on Cooper with taunts like “You just got your ass handed to you by a retiree” and you’ll believe you’re watching a Mamet film on steroids.
All of this comes courtesy of a surprising source in Robert Schwentke, who last directed the solemn Jodie Foster thriller “Flightplan.” While there’s nothing that’s particularly distinguished about “Red” visually or in its plotting, he does well to get out of the way of his cast, luxuriating in exchanges between Willis and Parker, whose sparks together rival any of the literal fireworks in the film’s action sequences, right down to the more throwaway conversations Willis has with Cox and Ernest Borgnine, who shows up as a backroom guy at the CIA.
If anything, Schwentke’s main problem is having too much of a good thing, occasionally encountering a lull when balancing out the demands of pushing the story forward versus a desire to accommodate his entire cast, which is why Mirren and Freeman seem strangely marginalized by the end of the film.
Still, the only thing more ridiculous than the premise of “Red” is the idea that any of its stars are over the hill. At an age when Willis and his co-stars are thought to be moving out their prime as movie stars, they prove they might just be the only movie stars we have left, able to power a film like “Red” on charisma alone. It is a film made by grown-ups, if not necessarily made for them, but then again, it is also the kind of fun that can’t be achieved by simply kidding around.
“Red” opens wide on October 15th.