RED held a lot of promise for me personally, as it’s based on a DC Comic written by my favourite comics writer, Warren Ellis. His sharply-observed, humourous and relentlessly misanthropic Transmetropolitan series is just about my favourite graphic novel, so it’s nice to see his work being adapted to the big screen. Of course, this carries with it the inherent danger of the word ‘adapted’. This could go the way of the famously unfaithful Alan Moore film adaptations such as V for Vendetta, From Hell or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (worse than the source material, but all of which I must admit, I still quite liked), the almost-too-faithful Frank Miller frame by frame adaptations such as Sin City or 300 (exactly the same as the source material), or even the take-the-idea-and-run-with-it Mark Millar stuff, like Wanted or Kick-Ass (both arguably better than the source material).
RED (the film) is the story of Francis ‘Frank’ Moses (Bruce Willis), a retired CIA agent who suddenly finds himself the target of a hit squad looking to retire him a little more permanently, having been classified as R.E.D. (Retired Extremely Dangerous). He escapes and goes to the one person he can trust; a young(er than he is) call centre operator who deals with his pension payments (Mary-Louise Parker). Having kidnapped her (for her own safety, of course) he proceeds on a road trip across America to recruit some other retired agents (Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren) to find out why he is being pursued, whilst the CIA (in the form of Karl Urban) and other shady types conspire to eliminate him.
One of the key differences (for there are many) between the comic and the film is that this is also played as an action comedy rather than a straight thriller, dealing with retired agents getting back into the thick of espionage action. On paper this is a great idea, and one that the trailer takes full advantage of, but unfortunately the feature length version spreads the comedy a little too thin to make this work. There are laughs to be had, but they’re almost all in the trailer already, including one pretty big spoiler which ruins a potentially amusing part of the film.
Most of these laughs come from John Malkovich’s character, Marvin Boggs, another ex-colleague of Willis, a conspiracy-theory obsessed loner driven paranoid by many years of CIA-administered LSD. Insane and accurate in equal measure, he twitches and rambles through the script, wild-eyed and, as ever, highly entertaining. It’s a shame he’s not given more screen time, as he’s by far the most amusing thing in the film, and one of only two people involved in this project that look like they had fun making it.
Morgan Freeman would be the other, clearly revelling in the chance to play spy at 73 years of age. His lazy charm and barely-concealed excitement almost make up for Bruce Willis sleepwalking emotionlessly through the whole film, or Karl Urban’s competent but workmanlike turn as the generic young guy getting shown up by the oldies. Helen Mirren turns in a similarly uninspired performance, and Richard Dreyfuss does his best to ham it up as the villain, another role with lots of promise, but very little meat on its bones. And the less said about Brian Cox’s terrible Russian/Scottish accent, the better (although he does manage to inject his supporting character with more emotional depth and interest than Willis does as leading man).
It should be a crime to assemble such a competent cast on a movie with such a good premise, and then waste it with writing this boring. Telling, then, that the Hoeber brothers, who wrote the screenplay for RED, are next working on the adaptation of the board game Battleship for the big screen (no, really). Robert Shwentke’s (The Time Traveler’s Wife) plodding direction also doesn’t help with the pacing of the film; this is a fitting introduction to the tedious life of the retiree Moses, but it never really picks up the required pace ones things get going. Nobody is expecting a Cocoon-like rejuvenation of the cast when thrown back into the excitement of combat, but it would have been nice to see them run around a bit more, or at least act like they were in the slightest danger at some point.
The main problem with RED is that when there isn’t some shooting going on, there’s nothing going on. With the exception of Willis and Malkovich, none of the characters really bond on screen or seem like they even enjoy each other’s company that much. They’re supposed to be old and very close friends, but the smiles, hugs and pleasantries are those of a slightly awkward family reunion of distant relatives, rather than a tight-knit group of lethal buddies ‘getting the band back together’ for one last job.
Sure, the music throughout desperately tries to convince you that there’s something tense or exciting about to happen, but most of the time it’s just a couple of actors mumbling their way through dull, uninspired dialogue, shuffling through scenes until it’s time to blow something up again. It’s not even as if there’s a lot of exposition going on, as most of the story behind why Moses is being targeted doesn’t really fall into place until very near the end of the film (by which time I’d be amazed if anyone still cares), when it turns out to be a fairly banal reveal of the quite reasonable and fairly tedious reasons why someone with power would want to get rid of someone like Frank.
On the positive side, the romantic sub-plot between Willis and Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah Ross, the aforementioned call centre worker, is handled well, never falling into either the trap of having her play either the Princess Peach-style ‘helpless victim’, or the ‘just-as-tough-as-a-guy’ independent woman stereotypes. Even this is not fully developed though, as she and Willis spend a reasonable amount of time together at the start of the film before she is largely absent during the second and third acts (at least in spirit/dialogue if not in body), referred to only occasionally by the other cast members, usually just to remind us she’s there or for one of them to ask ‘who’s the girl?’, and reunited for the obligatory happy ending.
I really wanted to like RED. The idea of wise old sages coming in to teach the new guys a thing or two, effortlessly taking on hordes of young whippersnappers and besting them in entertaining ways has its obvious appeal (not least to the generation of 80s action movie fans probably pushing retirement themselves), and even as a younger member of the audience I can appreciate a good bit of ‘in the old cold war days things were very different’ nostalgia (hell, most Bond films have been doing this for the last 10 years). But RED never really gets started, dawdling like a pensioner in a supermarket unsure of which flavour soup to buy. It squanders the concept and characters it is given, underusing or underdeveloping the best ones, and hoping that throwing lots of them at the screen at once, doing not a whole lot, will keep you entertained. There’s not enough action for an action film, not enough travelling (that we see) for a road movie, not enough plot for a conspiracy thriller, and not enough comedy or camaraderie for a buddy comedy. In the absence of another decent action movie about over-the-hill assassins (I’m looking at you, The Expendables), you could do worse than see RED, but given its potential don’t be surprised if you leave feeling a bit disappointed with the end result.