If you’ve seen the trailer for RED (the letters stand for “Retired Extremely Dangerous”), then you’ve pretty much seen the movie. It can, however, be argued that that is exactly what the audience wants: 111 minutes worth of that trailer. This weekend’s box-office numbers certainly suggest that may well be true (the film came in second behind Jackass 3D). And I guess that’s fine. I have nothing against RED. I found it unfailingly competent. I was largely content to while away a couple hours with the cast. I mean, there are much worse things than spending two hours with Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and—looking very spry and sharp at 93—Ernest Borgnine. But shouldn’t that much talent produce something better than RED? Unfortunately, that’s what we don’t get.
Based on every comment I’ve heard and the nonstop Internet chatter about Helen Mirren and guns, if what you’re after is seeing Helen Mirren firing big guns (I leave it to my more firepower-savvy readers to I.D. said arsenal), then the movie will satisfy you. Now, I enjoyed seeing all that and I enjoyed the magnificent sangfroid of her performance, but I wanted something more. All the stars are fine and the supporting cast is never less than perfectly adequate. Still, there’s something missing. All in all, I got more solid laughs—intentional or otherwise—out of Salt. Therein lies the problem: RED lacks the kind of authentic madness that Salt abounded in.
What we have here is a nicely set up action movie that rarely surprises. Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, a retired CIA agent who has developed a telephone crush on Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), the Social Security worker who handles his benefits. In order to have an excuse to talk to her, he has developed a tendency to tear up his retirement checks and say they haven’t arrived. This proves pleasant for both of them, until it turns out that someone has ordered a hit on Frank—and by extension anyone who knows him. After a well-staged—but hardly mind-blowing—sequence where Frank defeats the first assassination attempt, he sets out to collect the imperiled Sarah (allowing for a “meet cute,” since she doesn’t trust him, thinks he’s nuts and is disappointed in his lack of hair) and find out what’s going on.
This pretty much is what drives the plot—and what allows Frank to hook back up with former comrades Joe Matheson (Freeman), Marvin Boggs (Malkovich) and Victoria (Mirren), along with Henry the Records Keeper (Borgnine), and old nemesis Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox). Some of what happens is fairly funny—with the bulk of the quirkiness handed over to Malkovich’s LSD-burned-out character—but a fair amount of it is pretty darn perfunctory. And, frankly, I found a chunk of the middle of the film, well, boring. It righted itself by the end, but only just—and in the service of a mystery/conspiracy plot that just didn’t seem worth all the fuss.
So what works? Mostly, it’s the cast—and seeing Dame Helen unleash heavy firepower. There’s also a surprising romance between her and another of the characters. Freeman is kind of on autopilot in an underwritten role and Malkovich seems to be channeling Jason Miller in The Ninth Configuration (1979), but there are certainly worse people and performances to channel. Really, who I found most impressive—and this was a surprise after that pointless walk-on in The Expendables—was Bruce Willis. This may not be a great role, but it works to remind you how Willis got to be a movie star in the first place with his blend of brash, smart-aleck toughness and the sense of really nice guy underneath. That alone makes the movie worth a look. Well, that and La Mirren with really big guns. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence and brief strong language.