Robert Schwentke’s Red comes at a bit of an inopportune time. This year has seen a surprising overload of “group of killers and their hijinks” movies — The Losers, The Expendables, Operation: Endgame, The A-Team — all movies about with very similar concepts. They’re all humorous films about assassins/government operatives/mercenaries who get betrayed in some fashion, and are forced to gather together and shoot people and blow things up in an effort to clear their name. Being the last one on the list doesn’t help things, either. That said, Red has a few things going for it. It’s easily the most talented cast, the premise is a little more original, and it’s tongue-in-cheek humor is a little less broad and a little more clever.
That doesn’t make it a great movie, however. The story is simple enough — the CIA has retired Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), one of their greatest operatives, and he finds himself glumly living life as a tired, solitary schlub in the suburbs. The highlight of his month is when he calls government pension plan to complain about his check, speaking to Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), the only bright moment in his glum existence. Things take a turn for the more exciting when a CIA hit squad shows up to kill him, and Moses goes on the run to try to track down those responsible. He rounds up a team of other retirees and ex-operatives, including Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), Ivan (Brian Cox), and Victoria (Helen Mirren) to join his cause and get to the bottom of things.
It’s not a particularly complicated film, although it tries to pass itself off as one. There are a few twists thrown in here and there, but nothing that isn’t telegraphed from across the room. Red bills itself as an explosive action comedy, but it never quite hits the mark on any of those qualifiers. It’s funny enough, I suppose, but hardly memorably so. It’s got its share of exciting action scenes, but they tend to feel dragged out and uninspired. Written by Jon and Erich Hoeber (Whiteout, Peter Berg’s upcoming Battleship), it feels lazily drafted and while it shoots for breezy actioner, it mostly feels like a TBS Saturday afternoon movie with better casting.
That cast is what makes it worth watching. While the dialogue is decently engaging and the jokes are occasionally adroitly droll, it’s a cast of standouts that sells it. With a lesser cast, it would fall flat completely, but it’s packed with a surprising amount of skilled actors, making it feel like The A-Team starring the a-team. Willis is suitable as the weary, grizzled Moses, though he’s overshadowed by his cohorts. It’s hardly his fault — Willis has made a career out essentially playing the same guy in different iterations, whether it’s John McLean, Corbin Dallas or David Dunn — he’s generally a stone-faced hardass whose hand is routinely forced to leave a trail of ruin in his wake.
But in Red, he’s in the company of giants, and it diminishes him entirely. While he’s the star powering the vehicle, thrust into the midst of actors like Freeman, Mirren, Malkovich and even lesser-knowns like Parker and the very good Karl Urban (as the man tasked with hunting them down), that star feels rather tarnished. Mirren is unsurprisingly excellent, playing Victoria as a flinty-eyed vamp who keeps her hand in the game long after her retirement. Mirren will die some day, and when she does her corpse will still exude more gravitas and sex appeal than 90% of the current actresses working. Freeman could play the wry, winking Joe in his sleep, and in fact sometimes appears to be doing just that. The real treat is Malkovich, who’s the only one who gets to have any real fun in the picture. His schizoid, borderline-psychotic paranoid Marvin is a steaming pile of X-Files cliches, but he has such maniacal fun with it that you can’t help but get giddily swept up in his ridiculousness.
Director Robert Schwinke (Flightplan, The Time Traveler’s Wife) and the brothers Hoeber had all the tools at their disposal to make a boffo flick that should have been wildly entertaining and filled with nuanced performance. They simply aren’t up the challenges, and the resulting product, while not a bad way to spend a couple of hours, feels like an exercise in untapped potential and results in a lonely entry in the genre. The film simply isn’t solid enough to call for the actors involved, but on the other hand, it’s the very presence of those actors that elevates it above its lackluster script. As a result, I suspect that in a week or two, I’ll have forgotten about Red almost completely, other than to remember that on a Friday night in October, I had a decent time and wasn’t too bored. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but it’s the best I can do. Red has enough laughs and entertaining gunfights and fisticuffs to keep you from turning it off, but not enough to really turn you on.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.