Starring Bruce Willis, Mary Louise Parker, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman
Charisma. Those who have it can get away with other gaping flaws. I know a number of people who have gotten quite far in life for no other reason than the fact that they are instantly likable. “Red” is that kind of movie: flawed, implausible but charming because of a cast who carries the film on their sizable shoulders.
I have a soft spot for espionage films—even ridiculous ones; being raised on James Bond films will do that. “Red” is very much in the vein of a Sean Connery “Bond” movie: over the top, ham-fisted and so committed to entertain it’s easy to overlook the nonsensical story. I assume “Red” aspired to be more serious, judging from its engaging concept: Retired members of the CIA and other cloak-and-dagger agencies wind up on a hit list.
Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is a retired CIA operative with an illustrious career. Retirement has left Frank depressed. Inaction is not something he’s used to. He finds a kindred spirit and starts a relationship via the phone line with Kim (Mary Louise Parker), a customer-service representative for a company handling his pension. She wants to travel, likes trashy romance novels, and comes right out of the “40-Year-Old Female Leads” catalog: lonely, lovelorn, desperate for some adventure. Think Kathleen Turner a la “Romancing the Stone” but with a nicer ass.
When Frank and all of his known associates are targeted, Kim gets pulled into the crossfire. Kidnapping and assassination are not exactly ideal topics of conversation on a first date. Frank soon begins to assemble old allies, many of whom are being targeted. The “why” and “who” are eventually explained; though, it doesn’t really matter much. In fact, the more I think about it, the more the whole plot seems kind of worthless. It’s something seen in a lot of thinly written films: I call it “The Exploding Face.”
“The Exploding Face” basically works like this: Spy thrillers kind of live and die by a basic rule that whatever master plan is laid out by the villains is ultimately undone by the fact that the plan is so poorly conceived, it ends up blowing up in their faces. Case in point: the entire plot of “Red” revolves around the forthcoming presidential campaign and the candidate for VP, John Stanton. He decides that before he can run for office, he needs to clean up some rather ugly business from 1981: a wholesale slaughter of a village in Guatemala. He tries to kill Frank and his friends (John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman), which motivates them to expose Stanton. Thus ending his hope for office.
The question remains: Why bother? There’s a bit early on about a reporter being killed. Understandable—probably shouldn’t be public knowledge given the election and all. That’s basic “Maniacal Villain 101.” But why kill the retired assassins? Why piss off known killers who have special skills for subterfuge? Are these people ones who should be enemies? This plot has an “Exploding Face” quotient of nine.
As I mentioned, casting saved “Red.” It’s as good as the talent on screen. Bruce Willis is rarely great anymore, but he’s usually good. Morgan Freeman does his usually acceptable job, playing the soft-spoken mentor. John Malkovich has played insane goofball so many times that it almost feels like type-casting, but he’s still entertaining. Helen Mirren brings her quiet sensibilities to a very loud movie.
The headliners are great, but there’s just as much quality in the supporting roles. Karl Urban (“Star Trek”) plays the morally conflicted CIA agent with more integrity than the film deserves. Richard Dreyfuss and Bryan Cox are equally amusing in small but pivotal roles. They even find something for Ernest Borgnine to do (yes, I thought he was dead, too). The only blight on the cast is Mary Louise Parker. She spends the whole movie looking nervous with an awkward stare that recalls the befuddled look of someone doing a sketch opposite Benny Hill.
So, you have a great cast, a lot of firepower, and a story that is as phoned-in as dinner at a Papa John’s. I can live with that. The success of “Red” comes from the effort. I recently reviewed Ben Affleck’s “The Town,” an “A” movie that excelled with a lot of “B” talent. “Red” is the polar opposite: A “B” movie espionage flick with “A”-level talent. It’s nice to see Hollywood mess with the formula every now and again. It might have little else, but the movie has a lot of charm. Sometimes, that’s enough.