Friday, November 12, 2010

RED: Retired, Extremely Dangerous

So the first review to be posted is also my latest. Red is now showing in theatres.

Movie Review                                                                                                             11/11/10

Starring: Bruce Willis, Mary Louise-Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren
Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Summit Entertainment/diBonaventura Pictures.

            “Life begins at 60” has, for a long time, sounded like a pithy excuse to keep the elderly in the workforce and deny them their pension. However, there are some who get more badass with age. Just a couple of months earlier there were The Expendables, a gang of soldiers who had seemingly past their prime but could still do some serious damage. Giving Stallone and co. a run for their money are the team from RED, which stands for “Retired; Extremely Dangerous”. And there is ample proof that those two terms are not mutually exclusive at all.

            Frank Moses (Willis), once one of the CIA’s best agents, has settled into a mundane routine in suburban Cleveland. Moses is nurturing a relationship-by-telephone with Sarah (Louise-Parker), a customer service agent from his pension office, and decides to go down to Kansas to see her.

            Frank is assaulted in his home by a squad of heavily-armed mercenaries, and is made fully aware that his past has caught up with him, and that the CIA has decided to silence him and anyone else who was witness to war crimes committed in Guatemala. The young(er) and ruthlessly efficient agent William Cooper (Karl Urban) is tasked with taking Frank out.

            Sarah is swept up into the whole mess as Frank hops around the country to reassemble his former teammates, a motley crew of similarly-retired and similarly-dangerous characters. There’s Joe (Morgan Freeman), disappointed with life in a nursing home, Marvin (Malkovich), delusional, unhinged but still a sharp operative and Victoria (Mirren), on the surface a genteel and proper elderly lady but a lethal marksman, with some assistance from Ivan (Brian Cox), a former KGB agent and rival.

            It turns out that the team have uncovered a far-reaching conspiracy involving the Vice-President of the United States (Julian McMahon) and wealthy arms-dealer Alexander Dunning (Richard Dreyfuss). And anybody standing in their way had best get out or be prepared to feel a lot of pain.

            Though it doesn’t look like it at first, Red is based on a Homage Comics graphic novel, by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner. However, the film bears little resemblance to the source material, but this is a rare case where that may be to the film’s benefit. As opposed to the serious and gritty graphic novel, the film version of Red is an action-comedy through and through.

            Action-comedies happen to be my favourite film genre. However, it is also a very tricky one. The balance of action and comedy must be just right, and there must also be other elements - style, emotion and the like - to complement the action and the comedy. For me, the benchmark was set by James Cameron’s True Lies, which delivered a highly effective one-two punch of big crazy action set pieces combined with belly laughs.

            Red is different but by no means worse than True Lies. It is that rare gem where everything comes together just right. The cast, the story, the camera work, the action sequences and everything else in-between fit just right. Normally, when a film is described as “patchwork”, it’s not a good thing. But this is a patchwork movie in the same way a beautiful quilt is also a patchwork. The film has style, but a style that is unpretentious and fun to watch, as opposed to sometimes pretentious “stylistic” movies.

            To compare it to the afore-mentioned The Expendables, in which Willis had a cameo, Red seems to triumph. On the surface, both are “Geriatric A-Team”-type action flicks. The former however, for all its macho bravado and nostalgic 80s-style hard action, was a reunion of action heroes with the plot a mere excuse. On the other hand, Red doesn’t take its superstar cast for granted and has many other elements going for it. Perhaps it has more in common with Morgan Freeman’s previous film The Maiden Heist, a whimsical and well-acted comedy that also had older stars.

            It’s hard to come by a good, genuinely funny comedy that is not overly cynical or sardonic. Red is at its core sweet and sincere. Yes, a movie with explosions, missile-launchers, smoke bombs and car crashes is, at its core, sweet and sincere. Red is ultimately very character-driven, and as such it is a good thing that the cast does an outstanding job. With John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Richard Dreyfuss and Morgan Freeman on the list, one could well mistake this for some Oscar-bait drama. And that’s one of the film’s many strengths: its cast do not seem to consider this to be frivolous or beneath them, and give their all while appearing to be having a blast.

To approach the film from a literary standpoint, its core theme seems to be about rediscovering youth. The two love story subplots, the first between Frank and Sarah and the second between two other characters (I won’t spoil it for you) feel like teenage crushes, puppy love almost, with the gunfights and fisticuffs keeping them from becoming cloying or saccharine. Marvin’s LSD-induced antics seem amusingly juvenile, like that of a crazy stoned youngster. And nobody does unhinged like John Malkovich, believe you me.
            Bruce Willis lets his softer side come through in-between dealing out pain to the bad guys, Karl Urban plays an anti-villain of sorts with a sympathetic edge, Helen Mirren is a blast as the gun-toting-yet-refined Victoria, Morgan Freeman affable as ever, Richard Dreyfuss gleefully evil and Mary Louise-Parker the perfect girl-next-door who finally gets the excitement she’s always wanted.
            Robert Schwentke, who previously ramped up the suspense in Flightplan, proves he can handle kinetic action scenes competently as well. It is amazingly refreshing to be able to watch a proper shootout sequence without the breakneck speed editing, headache-inducing camera angles and unnecessary bells and whistles. And Dame Helen Mirren firing away 50 calibre bullets is a sight that has to be seen to be believed.
            Red may well be my favourite movie of the year thus far. Its combination of heart, style and adrenaline make it a winner. Most of its stars may be age 55 and above, but this is one very fresh film. Red gets my green light.
Jedd Jong Yue


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