Retired, Extremely Dangerous

It’s not giving much away to tell you that the title of the new action comedy “RED”, stands for “Retired – Extremely Dangerous”. My wife uttered the most succinct possible praise of this movie when she said, as we were leaving the theater, “This was the movie The Expendables should have been.”

Indeed it was. This fun flick about theoretically-superannuated Spec-Ops assassins forced back into the game is light where The Expendables was leaden, moving where The Expendables was preachy, and funny where The Expendables was plain stupid. Who knew Bruce Willis could do comedy from inside his action-star persona? OK, to be fair, a certain amount of wry deadpan humor has always been part of the man’s shtick, but in this movie he gracefully crosses over into spoofing all his previous tough-guy characters, with genuinely hilarious results.

It starts good, with Willis packing more funny into a retiree wordlessly going through his morning rituals than a lot of comedians can manage in the same number of seconds of high-decibel mugging. Frank Moses moves as he fears the mundane life he’s constructed around himself might shatter if he pokes at it too hard, and his quiet desperation is well figured by his telephone conversations with Sarah, the woman who’s his customer rep at the government agency that cuts his pension checks. She’s just as trapped as he is, reading trashy romances and dreaming of travel and flirting with Frank because he’s a long-distance fantasy that can never become real enough to let her down.

It gets better, as Frank’s home is literally shot to pieces by a CIA hit squad that he defeats in classic action-hero style – the bit with the bullets in the skillet is especially good and I shall remember it in the unlikely event that I ever have to simulate a firefight in my house. Frank, taking it on the run, realizes that Sarah is likely on the hit list too because she’s his closest contact, and ends up kidnapping her shocked and disbelieving self so he can pull her out of the line of fire. The scenes immediately following, in which Sarah oscillates between shrieking physical indignation and her increasing attraction to the man who is actually saving her life, are the funniest in the movie, and stake Mary-Louise Parker’s claim to A-list status in the comic actress division. Though Willis is, in his own quiet way, even funnier when he muses wistfully about how he wishes they had actually met. Neither of them misses a note, they have excellent chemistry, and the writers get a gold star for creative use of duct tape (which, yes, becomes a running gag later in the movie).

More plot would be a spoiler. Frank, and an increasingly cooperative Sarah, must get to the bottom of who is trying to kill them and why. And to do that Frank will need old friends – his ops team – and at least one old enemy. The movie shifts gears into an ensemble comedy with explosions as old loves are rediscovered, old loyalties tested, villains turn into heroes, and the shape of the double betrayal driving the plot becomes clearer.

This thing isn’t any more plausible than your typical action movie, but the writers generate so much fun pastiching the conventions of the form that you won’t mind. It’s worth the price of admission just to hear Helen Mirren’s character Victoria airily suggest “a little girl time” with Sarah while fondling a sniper rifle, and then coolly inform the girl “If you break his heart, I will kill you and bury your body in the woods”. Even funnier is Sarah’s gulped “OK…”, which manages to compress into a disyllable more emotional nuance about her developing relationship with Frank than a lesser actress would have needed several lines of dialogue to convey.

It doesn’t hurt that every one of the players seems to be enjoying their roles immensely, and catches the audience up in that. Even the supporting parts – notably John Malkovich as the comically paranoid team nutcase and Brian Cox as the old Soviet adversary turned ally – are carried off with unusual elan and an appropriate air of broad farce. It’s actually high praise to note that Morgan Freeman, being his usually patrician and charismatic self, is the weakest link in this chain.

Perhaps the only wrong note this movie hits is one that was perhaps inevitable, Hollywood being Hollywood. The actress playing the female lead is in her mid-40s, a decent age match for Frank Moses who looks a bit younger than Bruce Willis’s actual 60 years. But they dressed her and made her up to look rather younger than that. The effect isn’t outright creepy in the way that pairing Harrison Ford in his 60s with twentysomething starlets was in those middle Indiana Jones movies, because Mary-Louise Parker’s natural mode is more intelligent waif than sexpot – but I couldn’t help noticing it. In retrospect I wish they had let the woman look a little closer to her natural age, but that ain’t going to happen with a female lead in Tinseltown.

Still. RED was undoubtedly the best action movie I’ve seen in 2010. It’s up there with Grosse Point Blank and True Lies as one of the rare films that does a consistently deft and intelligent job of weaving between action/suspense and satire of its own genre. Everyone in this film will be proud to look back on it, I think, but the one it may be a career-defining performance for is Mary-Louise Parker. It’s not news that Bruce Willis can carry a movie, but she was a surprise – funny tough, vulnerable, intelligent, echoing the Jamie Lee Curtis of True Lies a little, and developing a character that could have been nothing more than a shrill cartoon into something appealing and quirky and believable. I’ll watch for her in future movies.

44 thoughts on “Retired, Extremely Dangerous

  1. Who knew Bruce Willis could do comedy from inside his action-star persona? OK, to be fair, a certain amount of wry deadpan humor has always been part of the man’s shtick, but in this movie he gracefully crosses over into spoofing all his previous tough-guy characters, with genuinely hilarious results.

    C.f. “Hudson Hawk”.

  2. Let’s not forget Bruce Willis in Pulp Fuction as Butch. Very very funny in that role as a tough guy.

  3. Don’t forget: Bruce Willis got his start in the comedy MOONLIGHTING. Also, even though this may be OT, I have always considered Mary-Louise Parker one of the best looking actresses, even if she never got much attention.

  4. In general, I find that comedic actors can do drama, but not all dramatic actors can do comedy. That’s because all acting requires portrayal of various emotions, but comedy also requires that sense of what makes something funny.

  5. “The Whole Nine Yards” is an amusing film in a somewhat similar line (if I understand “RED” right), with Bruce Willis playing a retired mafia hitman and Matthew Perry as his henpecked dentist neighbor. The result is a nice screwball comedy, more than action, though the bodies and double-crosses do start to pile up toward the end.

  6. One thing about Boggs (Malkovich’s character) is that as paranoid as he is, ultimately he isn’t wrong that often.

  7. @ BigFire

    as a Romanian, I can vouch that “Moldova sucks!”. Republic of Moldova, that is.
    Felt kinda awkward to be the only one laughing in the theater at the end.

  8. Yeah, this film reminded me a lot of “The Whole Nine Yards,” which I think was a brilliant movie as well.

    As far as Bruce’s comedy chops, Eric, you’ve got to be kidding. Bruce is fantastic IMHO at comedy. Of course I count myself in that small group of people that actually really liked “Hudson Hawk.”

    I also don’t think Mary-Louise Parker was made to look too young. From the film I’d have guessed the age they were shooting for with her character was late 30’s early 40’s.

    All in all though, Red was a great movie.

  9. The mix of comedy and action has been one of Bruce Willis’ trademarks throughout his entire career. In addition to the other fine films mentioned, re-watch the Die Hard movies, Armageddon, etc.

    Moonlighting, for those that are either too young to remember or have never watched too much television, where Willis got his “big break” playing David Addison, was known for its mixture of comedy, suspense, drama and romance.

    I suggest you start watching more movies, Eric. It seems you’ve missed out on a lot. :)

  10. > I suggest you start watching more movies, Eric.

    Not necessarily, Morgan. But there are two times to remember this:

    1) When the life extension tech is not quite as good as we want. You know, the awkward phase where it’s lengthening your old age rather than making you young? That’s when you go back and watch all the old movies you missed.

    2) When procrastinating / vegging out and movies on demand with commercials becomes the way we do free / monthly pay TV. Instead of watching whatever drek is on your 20 free / 400 pay channels, watch something good!

    I will be moving from the 20 free to the 400 pay channels soon, so my odds of something good are going up, but why oh why isn’t there a free movies on demand web site with commercials? (*) Even with a limited catalog, at least I could pick two star movies in genres I like – which is worth an extra star.

    (*) Answer 1: I lack ambition to build one. Answer 2: I lack ambition to find the one that already exists. Oh, that’s sad.

    Yours,
    Tom

  11. “Mary-Louise Parker. It’s not news that Bruce Willis can carry a movie, but she was a surprise – funny tough, vulnerable, intelligent, echoing the Jamie Lee Curtis of True Lies a little, and developing a character that could have been nothing more than a shrill cartoon into something appealing and quirky and believable. I’ll watch for her in future movies.”

    She had a continuing cameo set of appearances in The West Wing as the on/off again girlfriend of Josh Lyman (Brad Whitfield) in which she was good, but if you want *very good* you need to see WEEDS. She is the main character and she is GOOD. Oh, AND BAD. Lots of dark comedy, and lots of fun. Presently showing its sixth season on Showcase and recently renewed for a seventh.
    Probably available on DVD, is available for viewing through Showtimes (not available in Canada… a pity). But START AT THE BEGINNING. There is lots of character developement and backstory which you need to know.

  12. @Tom: I moved to the 400 monthly pay channels (read: cable TV), oh, about 10 years ago. Guess what happens? There’s still nothing on!

    I actually did not do this by choice, mind you. I used to use DSL for Internet access and, after having trouble with the service for nearly a year, I found out what the ILECs were doing to the CLEC DSL providers at that time (randomly unplugging DSLAMs, replugging them into the wrong ports, etc.), I stopped using DSL. Now notice that hardly any CLEC DSLs exist any more. I now refuse, on principle, to give a single red cent to any of the big telcos — AT&T, Verizon, etc., for their services, due to their continued persistence to play dirty pool.

    Back on topic: Mary-Louise Parker, according to IMDB (which, I am told, is very reliable in these matters), was born in 1964, which puts her in her mid-40s. She does look rather young for age, but you need to bear in mind that the vast majority of still shots that you’ve seen in magazines and on the Internet are photoshopped — big time.

    OTOH, I do concur with Ken’s assessment that Mary-Louise Parker is hot. I think the reason she’s often overlooked as a sex symbol is that she is fairly plain looking. Her acting ability is decent; she gets the short-end of the stick sometimes because she’s been frequently upstaged in movies with top-notch talent — Whoopi Goldberg in Boys on the Side, Jessica Tandy and Cicely Tyson in Fried Green Tomatoes, etc.

  13. It starts good, with Willis packing more funny into a retiree wordlessly going through his morning rituals than a lot of comedians can manage in the same number of seconds of high-decibel mugging.

    See also: The Fifth Element, where you even get Chris Tucker’s high-decibel mugging to compare to. It’s no surprise that “No, sir, I am a meat popsicle” has achieved internet meme status, when none of Tucker’s lines have.

  14. >As far as Bruce’s comedy chops, Eric, you’ve got to be kidding. Bruce is fantastic IMHO at comedy.

    Oh, I knew he could do broad comedy. It’s the combination of that with his action-hero persona I hadn’t seen before.

  15. OTOH, I do concur with Ken’s assessment that Mary-Louise Parker is hot. I think the reason she’s often overlooked as a sex symbol is that she is fairly plain looking.

    Raw talent or magnetism can often overcome that, even for female performers. Uma Thurman is rather plain looking: too tall and gaunt for my tastes, with eyes that are spaced oddly far apart. But I have a huge crush on her because her screen presence makes her amazing to watch, and she has a Raul Julia-like ability to turn a bad part in a bad movie into a tour de force. There are only two movies I think she was bad in: The Truth About Cats and Dogs (she is simply too amazonian to play an airhead) and Batman and Robin (because it was freakin’ Batman and Robin).

    Contrast that with the kind of performer Hollywood tends to single out as the new hotness. Megan Fox? Please. They may as well cast a Kardashian. Oh shit, that’ll give ‘em ideas.

  16. >I think the reason she’s often overlooked as a sex symbol is that she is fairly plain looking.

    Actually, I have the opposite assessment. I think Mary-Louise Parker is quite pretty in a girl-next-door way; if she’s “overlooked as a sex symbol” it’s because she isn’t really interested in coming off as one. This is a reasonable strategic option if she’s interested in intelligent men; I’d certainly rather bed her than any of the brainless plastic “sex symbols” Hollywood churns out (Jessica Alba stands out as a particularly repellent example).

  17. Have they just realized that if the average action movie is profoundly unrealistic anyway – and it has to be or it would lose much of its potential entertainment and action value – then there is no point in trying to keep a straight face about it and pretending that it is something serious, but might as well take it as a subset of comedy? A kind of the reinvention of the origins of theater: anything that is not meant to be profoundly realistic i.e. a tragedy should not try to pretend to be serious but be at least partially comedy?

  18. “It’s the combination of that with his action-hero persona I hadn’t seen before.”

    The Fifth Element?

  19. Actually, I have the opposite assessment. I think Mary-Louise Parker is quite pretty in a girl-next-door way; if she’s “overlooked as a sex symbol” it’s because she isn’t really interested in coming off as one.

    We’re thinking along the same lines, though it isn’t obvious to you. I never intended to imply by ‘plain looking’ that she’s ugly or is otherwise lacking in atractiveness. I did say she was hot, right? By ‘plain looking’ I mean ‘the girl-next-door.’ Perhaps I should have said ‘ordinary’ or ‘pedestrian’, but those are often mistaken for meaning ugly, too, I guess. I actually almost wrote, ‘because she’s not interested in being a sex symbol,’ where I said ‘plain looking’ but I decided that’s it’s not really possible for me to know what Mary-Louise Parker is thinking and backspaced over it.

  20. >The Fifth Element?

    Saw it once. Wanted to like it. Didn’t. I could see it was trying for funny but all I got from it was “weird and pointless”.

  21. > “This was the movie The Expendables should have been.”

    In fact, I will admit here that I actually went to that stupid, awful, horrible movie called “The Expendables” thinking it was going to be “RED”. I only realized my mistake about a third of the way through that torture when several characters whom I thought I had seen in the trailers failed to make their entrances.

    I will leave to others to judge the statement this makes about the quality and quantity of any active neurons I possess.

    “The Expendables”, just like “The American” (see my comments at http://blog.qtau.com/2010/09/un-american.html ), should not have existed, or, put another way, I wish I had had enough judgement to avoid seeing both of them.

    RED was entertaining enough.

  22. I note another virtue of RED: some of the hand-to-hand fight choreography (notably the fight between Moses and Cooper in Cooper’s office) was very good. And by very good I mean realistic. And by realistic I mean fast, vicious, very close range, and with lots of grappling and use of the environment.

    That, my friends, is what real hand-to-hand looks like between people who know what they’re doing – not the stylized run-and-gun from 4-6 foot range you see in dojos. The most implausible thing was that it lasted too long; fights like that normally end in a few seconds with a disabler or kill strike.

    I note there’s been a bit of a trend towards more realistic hand-to-hand in action movies lately. There was some similarly good stuff in The Bourne Ultimatum. My wife speculates that fight choreographers have been upping their game because movie audiences are much more sophisticated about martial arts than formerly; it may be so.

  23. RED is everything The Expendables should have been. Excellent movie. And yes, you’re right about the excessive length of the empty hand fighting.

    SPOILER ALERT

    Who shot Joe, and is Joe really dead?? I’m thinking he was wearing a bullet-resistent vest, and that one of the good guys shot him in the center of the vest. Cooper only had a chance to roll him over; not check for signs of life.

  24. Re: Russell Nelson

    Well, Boggs didn’t trust the either Frank Moses and the girl at first. He got over that. Yes, afterward, his paranoia turn out to have perfectly good justification.

  25. The Monster:

    In general, I find that comedic actors can do drama, but not all dramatic actors can do comedy.

    Leslie Nielsen, on turning to comedy late in his career: “I saved the hard stuff for last.”

  26. The only very unrealistic parts about the Bourne trilogy fight scenes is the amount of damage they would be taking and then walking away with. As one of my trainers told me, “In a serious fight, the winner is the one that goes to the hospital.” I thin the best hand-to-hand sequence in the trilogy is the kitchen fight in The Bourne Supremacy.

  27. Leslie Nielsen, on turning to comedy late in his career: “I saved the hard stuff for last.”

    Fun fact: Nielsen went to school with the late Les Lye, of You Can’t Do That On Television fame — another great Canadian actor who turned to comedy, and children’s fare, later in his career.

  28. Good grief, I’ve forgotten how much comedy Mr. Stewart can do just by moving his face.

    I was likely going to pass on seeing Red, until I read the review by James Berardinelli. His one-line version: “B-movie storyline with an Oscar caliber cast – must be seen to be believed”. Reading further, I got the impression he was still grinning even as he wrote his article.

    Sure enough, I went in, and laughed my ass off for nearly two hours straight. And when I wasn’t laughing, I was marveling at how much A-game the actors brought. Parker’s amused exclamation, “I’m not gay!” followed by furtive glances left and right, her expression unchanged… Willis’ shrugging his housecoat back onto his shoulder… Dreyfuss’ Evil Overlordisms… and the crew! Postcard dissolves, that music sounding straight out of Get Shorty… I could’ve watched two more hours.

    This is going on my personal list of best comedies. I might even pick up the comic on which it was based.

  29. Oh, and I happened to love Hudson Hawk as well.

    “Shut up! You’re gonna make me lose my place.”

  30. Favorite Patrick stewart comic line ever: Now let’s all get drunk and play ping pong!

  31. @ esr

    Oh, I knew he could do broad comedy. It’s the combination of that with his action-hero persona I hadn’t seen before.

    Of course you did–you’ve seen the Die Hard movies!

    What I think you mean, love, is that you didn’t think Bruce could combine ironic, self-referential comedy with his action hero persona. I thought that the Die Hard films and Fifth Element made it obvious that he could, but your mileage may well vary.

  32. My most recent Bruce Willis movie was Live Free or Die Hard, which was the movie Swordfish should have been. It also had the very gorgeous Mary Elizabeth Winstead (best known as Ramona Flowers) as John McClane’s daughter. Winstead displays significant chops in portraying someone tough, but cute, without falling prey to all the tough chick stereotypes. (Such a stereotype does appear in the movie but McClane leaves her “at the bottom of an elevator shaft with an SUV shoved up her ass”.)

    Apparently there was some geek on the aintitcool boards talking smack about this film in the runup to its release, about how it was going to suck, etc. Not only did Willis intervene, he got on iChat with the geek just so he could be sure it was Bruce motherfucking Willis telling him why the film was going to be awesome and have a story for all his movie geek buddies. That’s what I call promotion.

  33. >Of course you did–you’ve seen the Die Hard movies!

    I didn’t read those as comedy, but as action with some sporadic comic relief.

  34. The best thing I’ve ever seen Bruce do was the Vanity Fair spread with ex-wife Demi, and her boy toy, Ashton.

    Bruce spent the entire time with one consistent thought in his head, and it showed:

    “Hey, Ashton…. How’s my d**k taste, buddy?”

    Bad ass.

  35. Not only did Willis intervene, he got on iChat with the geek just so he could be sure it was Bruce motherfucking Willis telling him why the film was going to be awesome and have a story for all his movie geek buddies. That’s what I call promotion.

    Wow. Bruce Willis earns a new level of respect from me for that move.

  36. Most of the “gun fights” in the old West were assassinations not fair fights. Shot without warning or shot out of the saddle in the middle of nowhere. But this is too “cowardly” to fit the movie screen version of a cowboy movie. How does this relate to RED, you ask? A fair fight is dangerous. I am 67 with a medical condition where the doctor assures me if I bump my head I will be dead in a few hours. I cannot afford to trade punches or even risk trying. I’m not worried in a civilized society but in a post SHTF situation I would have to adapt. If I couldn’t just shot an assailant outright would do what I can to avoid a confrontation, take what you want, I’m outa here. But I will find you later and end it. Some of us are too old to fight fair which makes us all the more dangerous.

  37. @GoneWithTheWind,

    One of the lesser-known (at least, I never knew about it) E.E. “Doc” Smith series is the two-volume _SubSpace_ Series (SS Explorer and SS Encounter)

    The second book has our typical Doc Smith hard-core heroes meeting some utterly martial folks, who regard knife fights to the death as a nice evening’s entertainment. The latter group regards our heroes as nice enough, but rather too soft to be left out alone.

    Then somebody pisses off our heroes, and the gloves come off. I can’t do justice to the quote, but it’s something like, “There is nothing more deadly than a man of peace who has concluded that it is time for war.”

    Just ask the Japanese of the 1940’s, for example.

  38. How much do you think Microsoft paid for the Bing product placement in Red (eg library computer, approx 28 mins)?

  39. The quote from near the end of E E Smith’s Subspace Encounter is:

    … the deadliest possible performer is not one whose ordinary life is one of violence, but a highly intelligent entity who, having coldly and accurately evaluated a situation and having come to a decision, proceeds coldly and ruthlessly to take whatever action is necessary to implement that decision.

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