“Red” – In This Case It Means Go

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

A sweet ‘n’ salty, kettle popcorn of a film, Robert Schwentke’s “Red” is a mixture of farce and shoot-‘em-up action certain to warm the cockles of any retiree’s heart. You’ll see more and more of these whimsical tributes to Baby Boomers — depicted as virile, vibrant and virtuous — as they enter their golden years. I like to think of it as non-fiction.

But while certainly serving of its purpose and a solid hoot in the bargain, no objective cineaste, young or old, will list the ingratiating romp among Filmdom’s best, or even near best, movies. Still, a year or three hence, if it comes on TV and I’m neither too weak nor weary, nor pondering some forgotten lore, I’ll avail myself of its rather merry derring-do.


When it appears his character’s past might have caught up with him, Bruce Willis, the best tongue-in-cheek man in Hollywood, leads a band of retired black-ops in search of truth, justice, the American way, and some very missed and dangerous laughs. He is Frank Moses, classified as RED (retired, extremely dangerous). This, the CIA gets right.

And while he’s making a comeback, which, by its very nature, offers all sorts of opportunities for vindication and redemption, it only makes sense that he has another go at everlasting love. Unfortunately, he doesn’t make a very good second impression with Mary-Louise Parker’s Sarah Ross, the phone pal he doesn’t meet until he kidnaps her.

She was the secretary in Kansas City responsible for mailing his pension checks. And now, shanghaied, she’s on the lam with him in a wild and wooly, gunfire-punctuated variation on “It Happened One Night” (1934). In his signature dry patter, Frank explains the life and death necessity of his pushy introduction. Sweet Sarah had hoped he had hair.

The getting-to-know-you aspect of their budding romance is shortly interjected by the meeting, greeting and gathering up of Frank’s colleagues, done “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) way. In this manner, each operative can recite his or her resume, and Frank gets to show off and seek approval of his new flame. Everyone’s just so happy to see each other.

John Malkovich co-stars as Marvin Boggs, the recluse who owes his paranoia and quirkiness to eleven years of LSD experimentation courtesy of the CIA; Morgan Freeman is again his affable self, albeit in the form of killer elite Joe; and Helen Mirren is Victoria, who, like the Brewster sisters in “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944),  just can’t stop killing.

The screenplay, adapted from Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s DC Comics graphic novel by Erich and Jon Hoeber is suspenseful without the needless confusion that too often marks more serious but lesser examples of the genre. Suffice it to note a rather ambitious personage is trying to cover up past sins, and our man Frank is in his way.

Happily for us, the high-placed villain and his minions might have bitten off more than they can chew. Frank is quite the man. And his equally versatile and proficient pals are of the same stripe. Partners in heroics, it’s once more into the breach, not only to right some wrongs, but also to prove age has only made them wiser and more fearsome.

One adversary makes the especially critical mistake of calling Malkovich’s Marvin “old man.” Pun fully intended, he is a trip, expounding with great fear and loathing on all the high-tech ways the bad guys can kill you. Serving as a sort of unofficial referee to Willis and Parker’s wooers on the run, it makes for a filmic troika that might be worth repeating.

Mary-Louise Parker’s ordinary gal placed in extraordinary circumstances fits the script’s needs with just enough winsome charm to prompt our suspension of disbelief. Serving as tour guide to a world Sarah had previously only read about in her steamy romance novels, Frank comically reminds of Peter Falk’s matter-of-fact Vince in “The In-Laws” (1979).

But the most pivotal role, the one that facilitates the all-important balance between funny and serious, is the one Karl Urban imparts. He is special agent William Cooper, assigned to capture the renegade retiree. In this alternating, lazy Susan milieu of high ideals, greed and suspicion of the government, it’s for us to find out where his true sympathies lie.

All of which makes for a movie greater than the sum of its mostly fluffy parts. The underlying appeal is derived not only from its paean to golden agers, but the vicarious pleasure of seeing some weighty issues handled with unequivocating resolve. The best average film playing the Bijou, this is one instance where seeing “Red” is a good thing.

“Red,” rated PG-13, is a Summit Entertainment release directed by Robert Schwentke and stars Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker and John Malkovich. Running time: 111 minutes

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