Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is retired. He lives on a quiet street in Ohio where all the houses look the same, and where all his neighbors say hello and make sure that their garbage cans line up perfectly with the curb. On the surface everything is idyllic, but in reality he is bored as hell. The only pleasure he gets in life are the regular phone calls to Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), who answers the phone at the pension office. Frank rips up his checks and pretends they didn’t arrive so he has an excuse to talk to her. Both are lonely individuals who rely on their truncated conversations to brighten up their respective days.
When a heavily armed hit squad busts into Frank’s home in the middle of the night, and he easily dispatches them, you start to wonder, what exactly did Frank Moses retire from? Turns out he was a CIA operative. And from the looks of things, he was pretty damn good at his job. His duties included assassinations, toppling governments, starting wars, ending wars, and all manner of shady black-ops. His file is a foot thick, and more is blacked out than visible.
Someone, somewhere has designated Frank “RED”, or “Retired Extremely Dangerous”, which is where the movie gets its name, and slated him for execution. Frank begins what amounts to a cross-country road trip where he picks up Sarah, and reassembles his old team that includes Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), and Victoria (Helen Mirren). Together they try to unravel the tangled web of lies and misinformation, and discover who exactly wants them dead and why, doing battle with Agent Cooper (Karl Urban) the entire time.
While the basic plot to “RED” is pretty standard espionage movie fare, with all the usual bells and whistles and plot twists, two things set it apart. The first is the humor. A dry, gallows humor runs throughout. The characters crack jokes and make light of their situation, but it is the sad comedy of people well aware that they’ll likely die horribly, and very soon. “RED” is funny, but with an air of tragedy at the same time.
What really drives the movie, what really makes it a lot of fun, isn’t the action. There is plenty of that, and it is good enough, but at the heart of the movie are the characters and their shared chemistry. Willis is perfect as Frank. This is the type of part that he is the best at, smart-ass tough guys with a good heart and a soft spot, the kind of guy who can take apart a team of trained assassins, crack a joke, and fall in love with a pretty girl all at the same time. Freeman is always good, and brings a wry smoothness to Joe. He may be 80, and have terminal cancer, but he’ll put a bullet in you with a smile on his face.
Watching Mirren, with her elevated civility and British charm, fire an enormous, belt-fed machine gun, is one of the true joys of “RED”. Malkovich steals every scene he’s in, and plays the severely paranoid Marvin, who isn’t really paranoid at all (they are after him), like a manic, sociopathic child. He lugs around a stuffed pink pig, pouts in the background when scolded, and takes a giddy, infantile pleasure in his violence.
You couldn’t imagine a better cast if you tried. From top to bottom everyone is top notch, even the supporting players. Parker is a bored, friendless woman swept up in the romantic adventure of it all; Urban is great as the conflicted company man; the perpetually phenomenal Brian Cox shows up as a Russian agent, who happens to be a hopeless romantic; Ernest Borgnine is a riot as the keeper of the CIA’s most secret secrets; and Richard Dreyfuss plays a scheming arms dealer.
Director Robert Schwentke doesn’t interfere much, and lets the ensemble do their thing, which is the right approach. At times “RED” is similar in feel to the “Oceans” movies, where the star power of the cast takes center stage, and the film is more about that rather than the actual plot. At other times it takes on the personality of a confrontational, high noon western.
“RED” is based on the Warren Ellis comic of the same name, and while the film retains a few of the key story elements, it has evolved into something entirely different. Ellis’ story a straight-ahead revenge tale where Frank kills everyone who knows of his existence in order to stay hidden and retired. It is dark and brutal. Sarah exists in the comic, but Joe, Marvin, and Victoria are nowhere to be found. However, Wildstorm did put out four single-issue, self-contained stories, one for each of the four main characters, that serve as prequels to the movie.
Writer’s Jon and Erich Hoeber definitely cartooned things up for the film, adding levity that isn’t there in the comic. Their approach works well, it is just different. You don’t need to be familiar with “RED” the comic to enjoy “RED” the movie. In fact, if they called it something different, and maybe changed Frank’s name, you probably wouldn’t even realize they originated in the same place.
“RED” isn’t a perfect movie, but it is pretty awesome, and thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. There are enough bullets to wage a small war, frantic hand-to-hand combat, and a ton of explosions. While those are all good enough reasons to see it, the real fun occurs between Frank, Sarah, Joe, Victoria, and Marvin, especially Marvin.