While RED (Schwentke 2010) may not be a revenge film in terms of its narrative and genre, the film none-the-less offers a revenge fantasy for baby boom audience members faced with marginalization as Generation X and beyond come into power economically and politically. RED’s plot, about a group of retired CIA agents banding together to fight back against their old employer who is looking to execute them, takes every available opportunity to allow its protagonists to beat down their successors, demonstrate sexual vitality and simply prove that they are not too old live like the young. As a card carrying member of Generation Y/Next/Echo Boom/whatever-you-want-to-call-us, my reaction to RED is quite simple:
It is a hell of a fun little film.
Now, that does not mean that RED is a great film, or some sort of classic in the action genre. It is not. Nor is it necessarily better than its comic source material, a three issue mini-series by the legendary Warren Ellis. I have yet to read the series, so I cannot comment. What RED is however is a slick little piece of popcorn entertainment that would have been nice to have had available during this past summer, in order to relieve audiences of all the garbage that the studios tried to pass off as fun films (with the obvious exceptions of the great Inception and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World). RED is a film without any preconceptions of greatness: it knows is strengths and limitations with regards to the material, and the filmmakers do their best to liven up the stock characters and situations with sharper than expected writing, directing and acting.
While director Robert Schwentke’s work thus far has been rather undistinguished, with credits on films such as Flightplan (2005) and The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), he brings a steady hand to RED, working from a script by Jon and Erich Hoeber (Whiteout). Schwentke seems to know that the best approach to the material is to simply allow the cast to carry the film and get out of their way. There are no auteur or wannabe-auteur attempts made in the film: Schwentke’s direction primarily consists of keeping the film energetic and moving a good clip, and it works. More importantly, Schwentke keeps the film relatively grounded, allowing for moments of comic action absurdity that are fantastic without turning the film into an outright fantasy of superhuman beings.
Carrying most of the film’s weight however is the cast, which provide uniformly excellent work. Lead star Bruce Willis, who earlier this year was underserved by the sub par script and direction of the buddy comedy Cop Out, gets to really flex his comedic muscles here as Frank Moses. Willis plays the role in a surprisingly vulnerable manner, downplaying the supposed “badass” coolness of Frank and instead plays up the character’s awkwardness with average life and relationships. This of course is helped in no small way by Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah, Frank’s possible romantic flame who comes to rather enjoy the dangerous situation she finds herself in. While Parker’s character is unfortunately saddled with the damsel in distress role at a certain point in the film, Parker makes the most of every scene she is in, brining a sense of spunk and joy to a character that could easily have been phoned in.
The film’s supporting cast is equally worthy of mention. Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich are given somewhat thin characters to work with, with Freeman particularly stuck playing a variation on the wise-old-man role. Both are clearly having fun onscreen however, and it is infectious. Malkovich in particular eats up every odd quirk he is given to play as Marvin, the paranoid and childlike ex-CIA agent who spent years being the subject of LSD experiments. The sight of a sad Marvin holding a stuffed pig by the tail is one of RED’s highlights, and Malkovich is given plenty of similar scene stealing moments throughout. Karl Urban as the young but not naïve agent tracking Moses is stuck playing straight man to pretty much everyone else in the film, but he once again proves that he has the charisma to be great leading man if he can ever score the right role to take him to the A-list.
However, RED’s best weapon is the duo of Helen Mirren and Brian Cox, as romantically involved agents from opposite sides of the long over Cold War. The pair’s subplot romance is almost a delightful romantic comedy onto itself, particularly in the final act of the film as the band of heroes put their final plan in motion. By this point, Cox’s character of Ivan Simanov seems vastly less interested in the grandiose nature of Frank’s plan than he is in pursuing Mirren’s Victoria with as much smooth charm as possible. Mirren meanwhile appears to relish the opportunity she has to play the most badass member of Moses’ crew, finding ways to blend flirtatious and motherly types of behaviour with the stone cold professionalism. Combined with the fact that Mirren and Cox have great chemistry, I simply would have loved for the whole film to be nothing more than a charting of their peculiar romance over the decades. A spin off film perhaps?
By the time RED comes to a close, there will likely be members of the audience saying that the filmmakers could easily have made a more substantive film dealing with the issues of an aging population and its rivalry with its offspring, and they would not be wrong. Others will likely be complaining that the film moves far away from leaner and meaner premise of Warren Ellis’ original comic. Again, I have not read the comics, though its reviews online point to it being a massively different work, and a fascinating one. Again, such complaints would not be wrong. However, both criticisms would seem to miss the fun to be had with RED, particularly given the lack of action films focused on older characters in modern filmmaking. Besides which, the film simply succeeds at what it sets out to do.
Fans of Ellis’ original comics can take one little bit of solace when it comes to the film: at least RED is not as disappointing as The Losers. Or as bad as Jonah Hex. Those are fans who really have something to complain about.