Friday, October 15, 2010

RED: Risible, Energetic and Delightful

RED (2010) • View trailer for RED
3.5 stars (out of five) • Rated PG-13 for brief profanity and plenty of violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.15.10

Some concepts are can't-miss, and that's certainly the case with RED, based on the deliciously snarky graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner.

Screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber maintain an appropriately wry tone, and the dry, deadpan one-liners are delivered with panache by veteran scene-stealers such as Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren.

Victoria (Helen Mirren) speaks softly, but carries a very big
gun, which she's not shy about using. She's also quite good
at keeping the paranoid Marvin (John Malkovich) focused
on the task at hand, which grows ever more complicated as
these retired black-ops agents find themselves targeted by
well-trained -- and much younger -- CIA assassins.
Director Robert Schwentke maintains a brisk pace, moving things along rapidly enough to compensate for the plot's comic book-style sensibilities. The narrative is jes' plain silly right outta the gate, but the overall tone is so whimsical that you're unlikely to mind.

Things begin mildly as Frank Moses (Willis), living a calm suburban life, makes another in a long line of calls to a cheerful bureaucratic drone named Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). Frank has fallen in like with Sarah's telephone voice, and so keeps shredding checks that her company is supposed to send him, just so he can claim that "It still hasn't arrived" as an excuse to call her again.

Sarah, for her part, finds Frank far more charming than the losers she keeps dating.

Frank's sedentary life takes a noisy turn late one night, when ninja-garbed assassins do their best to put numerous holes in him. They fail, which leads Frank  clearly not your average civilian retiree, as we're learning  to travel hastily to Kansas City, in order to protect Sarah. Frank realizes that his thus-far-unspecified enemies probably tapped his phone, and therefore are likely to kidnap Sarah as a bargaining chip.

So Frank kidnaps her first. Duct tape and all.

Parker, well-versed in absurdist action melodrama after several seasons on cable's Weeds, handles her character's plight with an amusing blend of indignation, curiosity and building excitement. Parker has a wonderfully arch smile and saucy gaze, suggesting an enthusiastic willingness for wanton behavior.

Sarah, it turns out, is a romance novel junkie; once Frank successfully convinces her that he's a former CIA black-ops agent, she's game for whatever gets thrown in her direction. Which turns out to be quite a lot.

Frank is but one of many individuals unwillingly cashiered by the CIA's forced-retirement edicts, and therefore designated RED: retired, extremely dangerous. On its own, that shouldn't warrant a sudden death sentence. But after dropping in on a few former cronies  Marvin (Malkovich), Victoria (Mirren), Joe (Freeman) and Ivan (Brian Cox), a Russian adversary-turned-ally  Frank grows suspicious of a long-ago assignment in Guatemala, and a "mysterious cargo" that was spirited away before a village and its entire civilian population were razed.

Gaining enough of a lead to further investigate this situation proves difficult, however, because a high-tech CIA hit man — Karl Urban, as William Cooper  has been assigned to kill Frank. And Cooper is very, very good at his job.

The question is whether Frank and his "geezer squad" are better.

Schwentke's approach will be familiar to fans of the Oceans Eleven series: plenty of peril and gunfire, but with plenty of Bondian bon mots to prevent things from getting too intense. That said, the action scenes occasionally include some explosive deaths more in keeping with Kick-Ass or The Expendables: not as gory, true, but just as lethal. And generally played for laughs.

The central mystery  what happened in Guatemala three decades ago, and why it matters now  is far less important than the character interaction, which is where this film truly shines.

Willis gets considerable mileage from his signature bemusement: the slightly askance expression that lulls opponents into the mistaken belief that he's harmless. He's also the epitome of grace and calm under fire; watch for the slick maneuver when Frank literally bursts from a spinning car to confront Cooper, as the latter prepares to run our hero down.

Frank's peaceful mien stands in stark contrast to Malkovich's Marvin, a disguise expert whose field worthiness was sabotaged by years of clandestine agency LSD experiments. The drug regimen left Marvin just this side of raving lunacy, but of the most amusing sort: one who knows that being paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

Malkovich's full-throttle derangement here is much more successful  and more entertaining  than the self-centered, socially inept clothes horse he's playing in Secretariat.

Mirren's Victoria is a hoot: a genteel transplanted Brit, once a wet-work expert (read: assassin) who now runs an upscale bed-and-breakfast inn ... but "still takes the odd contract on the side," as she rather guiltily confesses to Frank. Mirren is perhaps one of very few older actresses who can shift from Miss Marple-style flower-tending to lethal sharpshooting in the blink of an eye, while remaining wholly credible at either activity.

We don't get to learn much about Freeman's Joe, except that he and Frank are longtime friends. Cox makes a much stronger impression as the vodka-loving Ivan, who relishes this opportunity to make use of all the CIA codes, floor plans and fail-safes that his agents have stolen over the years.

Urban does well with his meaty role; Cooper is the only character in this free-for-all who 'evolves' in the sense of becoming a better, more perceptive human being.

Ernest Borgnine pops up memorably as Henry, keeper of the CIA's records vault; Rebecca Pidgeon is appropriately despicable as CIA section chief Cynthia Wilkes, who gives Cooper his marching orders.

Richard Dreyfuss is wonderfully arrogant as Dunning, a greedy industrialist who has built his fortune out of lucrative government contracts ... many of them off-book.

The action set-pieces are slick, although Schwentke makes the mistake of front-loading his pyrotechnics; the best shoot-outs and pursuits occupy the story's first half, which leaves the climax feeling a bit ... well, anti-climactic.

Christophe Beck's soundtrack amplifies the droll chaos with vigorous orchestral flourishes and a driving underscore, and the music's whimsical approach matches the film's overall tone.

Changes in setting  Chicago, New York, Kansas City, New Orleans  function as narrative "chapters" and are introduced by picture postcards that enhance the story's "road trip" aspects. Aside from establishing the passage of time, the postcards themselves are cheekily retro, with occasional animated touches.

These little flourishes signify an attention to detail that enhances any film. RED may be cotton-candy cinema, but Schwentke takes his job no less seriously; the same can be said of the entire cast. Their combined efforts result in a professionally polished final product: a cheerfully madcap caper comedy that you'll undoubtedly want to watch more than once.

No comments:

Post a Comment