Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Got Some Red on Me

So last week I took the opportunity to catch Red in the theater. Loosely based on the three-issue comic series by DC comics, the action/comedy proved to have an entertaining trailer, and with such a cast as Willis, Freeman, Mirren and Malkovich it seemed to be one of the "can't-miss" films of the year. But would seeing Red make you see red?

The story apparently has little to do with that of the original comic series (which is fine, since I never read it) but centers around a group of retired former wetworks operatives codenamed RED (Retired, Extremely Dangerous) who are temporarily brought out of their relatively listless lives due to C.I.A. hit squads suddenly try to take out retired operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), and not in the date sense. In questing to find out why he's being targeted for death, Willis is joined by his former mentor Joe (Morgan Freeman), madman Marvin (John Malkovich), successfully retired S.A.S. agent Victoria (Helen Mirren), and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a benefits worker who Frank has taken a liking to and is therefore also being targeted. The mission takes them to locales around the United States and proves that these folks can still perform like spring chickens when they need to.

Season's greetings!
The story here is a slightly unrealistic one involving conspiracy theories, government cover-ups, unlikely coincidences and unlikely romances. So it has to be held together by a band of characters and actors who can center the attention of the audience on themselves and make the story more palatable than it is. To that effort, it's commendable that this is in fact an amazing cast who work well together, from the big name stars to the lower tiered yet no less talented performers. Willis is usually not known for his pleasant demeanor on-screen. In fact, he does get his "yippie-ki-yay" game face on for much of the film. I don't know if it stems from working with older actors, however, but Willis somehow in Red gains something I've not seen from him in many of his performances: an almost boy-like wonder, especially when he's in scenes with his character's crush, Sarah. For once, he's not the top dog, at least not in all things, and it makes his character and his acting all the better. Malkovich is a hoot as a partially-psychotic former agent first seen hiding out in the Louisiana bayou. The part of Marvin was originally to be played by John C. Reilly, and while I've liked Reilly and can see him being successful in this type of role, he's simply outclassed by Malkovich in all aspects. Playing Marvin as defiant, schizophrenic, and, of course, paranoid of any number of possible conspiracies, Malkovich puts on one of his more memorable performances, certainly a step up from his last major role in the seriously underperforming Changeling. Of course, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people aren't out to get you, and so his character turns out to at times be more insightful than he would be otherwise. I simply can't imagine anyone but Malkovich in that role. Mirren is fantastic, with looks that could kill (sorry, I couldn't resist) and the demeanor you would expect from a true secret agent. She really takes to the somewhat humorous role with the same professionalism as she has in her multiple-nominated roles in the films The Queen and The Last Station, not to mention dozens of other similarly-lauded roles over the course of her career. Both the irony of seeing such a serious actress wielding high-caliber machine guns and the perfection of seeing the same thing lend a lot of credence to her ability as an actress. Of the main four, only Morgan Freeman disappoints, as there's simply not enough for him to do with his role, with all the best bits belonging to Willis, Malkovich and Mirren.

Not sure what to make of this scene
I was prepared to dislike Parker in this. Obviously most people know the actress as Nancy Botwin on Showtime's Weeds, but it's easy to forget that she has a long career in film and television preceding this, as I did. Frankly, the only film I've seen her in was Red Dragon, and her role was so small that I had completely forgotten about her not long after the fact. However, she shines here as an initially reluctant sidekick to Frank who gradually gets more and more excited as the terror and thrill of sneaking around and blowing stuff up puts a heavy emphasis on how dull and boring her regular life is. Parker is funny both physically and in her verbal delivery, a dual trait not many can claim to master. Also good though underutilized is Karl Urban as a C.I.A. agent tasked with taking out Frank. Urban has long been under-appreciated by Hollywood, with last year's Star Trek being his biggest and best opportunity to showcase his talents, and damned if he didn't make the best Doc McCoy since Deforest Kelly. Hopefully his role in Red is simply a gateway to bigger things and not a return to more of the same because he's far too talented to keep perpetually on the shelf. Brian Cox makes a surprise appearance as a former Russian agent who Frank goes to for help. I didn't even recognize Cox at first, his transformation so complete that it took me nearly half the film before it struck me who was uttering his lines, and his ability to meld into his part - as well as his charismatic interaction with the other characters, especially Mirren - makes for a great performance. Ernest Borgnine is simply wonderful as a records-keeper at the Agency, and Richard Dreyfus does a good if hammy job in a small but important role as a weapons' dealer and smuggler who is somehow involved with the conspiracy. These supporting performances, in conjunction with the larger star-held roles, mean that there are no weak moments with less-interesting characters pitted throughout the film, and the enjoyment level never dips because of that.

"He's dead, Jim. I killed him."
But great characters can't entirely keep together a plot secured by duct tape and staples. While interesting, the story is barely able to keep momentum throughout the film, and truly falters in the final act, when humor alone seems to be sustaining the plot threads, not suspense or drama, or even suspension of disbelief. We're never under the assumption that Frank and his team won't achieve their objective (though they never really GET an objective until near the end of the film) and that, unfortunately, makes the final payoff much less than it could have been. Also, the humor involving young upstarts calling members of the team "old man" or "grandpa" get old after a few turns, though the heroes' humorous (and often quite violent) responses make up for a lackluster effort by the screenwriters to get a cheap laugh at an older character's expense. It's a shame, but when your director's previous work was the same one who made The Time Traveler's Wife (Robert Schwentke), you have to expect that things won't be as good as you want them to be.

So THAT'S what John Malkovich looks like!
For it's sake, I wish Red had been released earlier this year. If it had, I would have grouped it with several action or comedic films I'd seen this year that rated favorably on my 2010 Top 10 List such as Alice in Wonderland, The Losers, and Date Night, all of which at one point dotted the list. However, all those titles were eventually knocked off the list by better films, and so Red, though it compares favorably with all those films, is denied a it's chance in the sun. It has great characters, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Malkovich get a Golden Globe nom for his performance (though I'd never expect him to win it), but the plot is simply too jumpy and the story poorly told and filled with extremely silly bits. Is it funny? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Indeed. Can I recommend it to people who want a cheap and silly film to see? Sure. Is it one of the best films of the year? A "can't miss"?

Sorry, machine-gun Mirren, no.

4 comments:

THE Real Estate Analyst!!! said...

Bravo!!!

Opinioness of the World said...

OMG...Helen Mirren AND Karl Urban!!! I so cannot wait to see this...but "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" MUST come first...

Gianni said...

Have you finished reading that yet? I haven't had a chance to pick it up all this week and am still at the beginning!

Opinioness of the World said...

No, STILL reading it. Almost halfway through though, most of which I read last night. Going to try to finish it up tonight and go see it tomorrow so I'll have a post for Monday. That's the plan anyways...