“Did you vacuum?”
My only knowledge of director Robert Schwentke was that he helmed the Jodie Foster vehicle Flightplan that didn’t interest me in the slightest and the sub-par adaptation yet very effective film version of The Time Traveler’s Wife. So, I wasn’t sure on whether his newest comedic actioner RED would end up being a hit or miss despite a couple of very fun trailers. Ends up Schwentke directed a couple well-received German language works to begin his career trajectory to Hollywood too, he isn’t just some hack brought into the system to fill a spot and do the studio’s bidding. And while he has mixed-genre hopped from action/thriller to sci fi/romance to action/comedy, it appears there is one common aspect running through the work—a very good handle on characters. The merry band of ex-government black ops soldiers here are a quirky bunch able to infuse the most dire situations with a spectrum of wit spanning from the cynical to absurd. Each role could have fallen into camp easily, subverting any semblance of the serious tone serving as the film’s backbone, but somehow Schwentke and his actors manage to keep it balanced.
Besides the lead role being named Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his retired-CIA status changing from green to red, there is little else to compare to the graphic novel of its source. I won’t pretend to have read the three-issue series, but after checking a plot synopsis online I discovered screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber created many of the supporting players, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire Guatemala thread was too. Whereas the operative looking to destroy Moses on the page knew of his work and became disgusted enough with the resume to red-light him, the cinematic version has its main pursuer as an ambitious up-and-comer at Langley, given his orders and the promise for promotion when all’s finished. But William Cooper (Karl Urban) isn’t after the retired analyst he is initially tasked with killing by boss Rebecca Pidgeon, (always good for a frigid, calculating performance)—Moses is a CIA legend. With a reputation that precedes him amongst old-timers like Ernest Borgnine’s records keeper and a 98% redacted file folder, his no-holds-barred attitude is shown pretty early on as he single-handedly dispatches a wet-work team on his tail and, with the help of CG, seamlessly exits a spinning cop car, guns drawn and firing without batting an eye.
Moses has been under surveillance and while he might want to take care of the people behind his death warrant, the fact he has been carrying on a phone relationship with his pension representative Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) means he isn’t the only one targeted. Needing to scoop her up, the next step is finding an old colleague in Morgan Freeman’s Joe to seek information and clarity on what he’s facing. Turns out the conspiracy stems from a cover-up job many years back in Central America, everyone involved already killed besides Frank, Joe, and the paranoid mess that is John Malkovich’s Marvin Boggs. Having to break into Langley, crash a Presidential nomination party, and hold a man hostage while in FBI-custody, you can imagine the kind of insanity queuing up to go down with trigger-happy killers who haven’t had the pleasure of taking lives in a while. The bullet count and body pile-up are astronomical, but with a PG-13 rating, it’s all done in fun with little to no bloodshed. Even when characters are blown up, we are simply shown the inferno of flames decimating the victim without any limbs flying or aftermath mess. Having Malkovich half-crazed and screaming as he plays GI Joe helps keep the carnage light too.
Throw in the cool, collected Helen Mirren as ex-MI-6 Victoria, Brian Cox as a Russian badass with a sense of humor named Ivan, and Richard Dreyfuss as a self-proclaimed bad guy in Alexander Dunning and you’ll see that Summit Entertainment culled together an inspired collection of AARP-ready performers. Willis is never better than when he’s got a gun in his hand and a snide smirk on his face; Freeman is having a lot of fun as the 80-year old, cancer-riddled spy willing to do whatever possible to move his unavoidable death outside his nursing home; and Malkovich steals every single second with his deadpan conspiracy quips and rubber facial expressions. Afraid of technology and Big Brother—with good reason since he had been fed LSD for decades as part of a government program—his penchant for hiding in greenery, having no regard for sentimentality, and use of a stuffed plush pig to conceal his weapons lends Marvin an air to be comic relief for the comedy. There are some serious undertones in the overall twisting plot, but by and large RED is meant to make audiences laugh. Parker even gets in on the action, an adrenaline junkie ecstatic to be away from her desk and headset.
There are some gimmicks included like the cheesy postcard titles to designate what city they are in and the government agents filling in the antagonistic role may be a bit too formal and exacting—especially since the main team makes short work of them throughout—but overall I don’t think anyone with a pulse can leave a screening and not have a smile on their face. It’s fast-paced, humorous at all times, and still retains a competent military cover-up story dealing with the lengths people are willing to go to keep nefarious deeds under wraps. Everyone involved seems to have bought into the premise and naturally go with the flow as a result. I think a more serious adaptation following the source material closer could have been a worthwhile endeavor, but I also can’t deny this incarnation’s success. I therefore can’t complain about the film itself or its creators behind the scenes, all of who seem to now be on track for bigger budgets and in-demand projects. With Schwentke’s next being R.I.P.D. and the Hoeber Brothers tackling both Peter Berg’s blockbuster Battleship and an adaptation of American McGee’s Alice videogame, I can say I’ll be keeping tabs on their progress thanks to this gem.
RED 7/10 | ★ ★ ★
 John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Bruce Willis in Summit Entertainment’s Red (2010)
 Karl Urban stars as William Cooper in Summit Entertainment’s Red (2010)
 Helen Mirren stars as Victoria in Summit Entertainment’s Red (2010)