Out to pasture—with guns
In RED, oldness is of the essence. Apparently it is a movie about patronizing the elderly. RED stands for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous,” and could be said to describe the film’s accumulation of hoary gestures, but in fact is itself the operative hoary gesture, by which the others are organized: It refers to a once-elite team of aged and variously cuddly trained killers who through the course of their adventure together endure betrayal, conspiracy, brutality and infirmity.
Of course, the film knows it’s saddled with clichés. But the knowingness is old. It could seem world-weary if not for its probably willful ignorance of the world. A comedy, it hopes, RED derives from Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s graphic novel for DC Comics, whose tone was tougher and focus tighter. There is oldness even in its ostensibly adolescent fixations—the soundtrack rawk throb and stunty slo-mo set pieces, the squall of semiautomatic weapons and performances. Maybe this is what happens when a generation weaned on comics and Bruce Willis flix starts closing in on middle age without ever really having grown up. Wow, what an old-person thing to say.
Willis’ Frank wakes at 6, out of habit, to another day of stale suburban retirement ritual. His hobbies now include trying to grow a tree from an avocado on a toothpick and flirting by phone with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the audibly foxy, cubicle-bound administrator of his pension. Then a team of hit men shows up from nowhere and shoots the ever-loving shit out of Frank’s house. It’s him they’re aiming for, obviously, but one virtue of extreme dangerousness is that it can serve as home security and life insurance simultaneously. Frank throws a few bullets in a frying pan and presto: hit men mincemeat.
Whoever they were, it’s safe to assume they’d bugged his calls. “They know I like you,” he sheepishly explains to Sarah upon kidnapping her for her own protection. This is good. This means they’ll be able to see each other in person now, and develop their relationship at least enough for her to tell him, “You can’t just go duct-taping people.”
They’ll also have to address the matter of somebody wanting Frank dead, which means bouncing around the country gathering up his old team. In case you missed it, that’s old as in from the past and as in not young. Enter Joe (Morgan Freeman), a gracious rascal; Marvin (John Malkovich), a paranoid acid-casualty crackpot; Victoria (Helen Mirren), the real reason you wanted to see this movie in the first place; and Ivan (Brian Cox), an old Russian Cold Warrior who once took three bullets for Victoria. From her, in fact.
Together they trace the matter of somebody wanting Frank dead to a limply, Dick Cheney-an Richard Dreyfuss and a web of government skullduggery. Old story.
At the CIA, they get help from a records clerk played by Ernest Borgnine (old!) and resistance from a relatively young buck played by Karl Urban—with whom Willis exchanges gunfire, fisticuffs and combative dialogue:
“Kordeski trained you?”
“I trained Kordeski.”
By now, regrettably, the movie has all but abandoned the wily and adorably coy Parker, who, at 46, seems almost scandalously young in the given company. She has the right sprit for enlivening dumb fun like this, but the film keeps too busy playing by rote to allow that. And so, leaving unperturbed such themes as the will to kill and the will to live, its antiquation continues apace. The more RED winks at the audience, the more the wink starts to seem like a geriatric essential tremor. It’s hard not to wrinkle your nose at the dense and dusty perfume of its atmosphere. It’s hard to be polite when offered a sampling from its bowl of fossilized hard candy.
The screenwriters are Jon and Erich Hoeber, who, before this, also adapted the graphic novel Whiteout and, after this, adapted the board game Battleship. The director is Robert Schwentke, who, before this, made The Time Traveler’s Wife. The draw is Mirren, who after this will move on to late Shakespeare. Isn’t the movie business weird? Was it better in the old days?