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.