There’s a scene in the new Bruce Willis spy-action-dramedy “Red” when everything is just about perfect. It comes about two-thirds of the way through the movie, and without giving too much away, it includes Bruce Willis and John Malkovich in trench coats and fedoras, Morgan Freeman bitch-slapping Richard Dreyfuss while wearing the cartoonish military costume of an African dictator, and Helen Mirren spraying FBI agents with an automatic weapon, a steel glint in her eye.
Starring: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren
The scene is cool and funny and smart, with everyone acting at their best, and if director Robert Schwentke had filled the entire movie with that scene’s vibe, “Red” would have been a great movie. As it is it’s an occasionally very funny movie that wants to be too many things at one time.
“Red” stands for “Retired and Extremely Dangerous,” the categorization given to ex-CIA agent Frank Moses (Willis at his signature laconic). Moses is living out his days in a nice Cleveland suburb, pretending to lose his pension checks so he can call the cute customer service agent at the pension office (Mary Louise Parker). His quiet Golden Years are ruined when he realizes that someone wants to kill him, and reunites with members of his old team to figure out why he’s being targeted.
I’m not even going to talk about how silly it is when Frank’s nice neighborhood in Cleveland is shot to hell by black operatives without any of the neighbors noticing, or that an 80-year-old man with Stage-4 liver cancer could look as spry as Morgan Freeman (playing another retired operative with said disease), or any of the other types of madness that occur during the movie. “Red”, based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, is a fantasy. It’s meant to be silly, and there’s a lot of charm to the plot’s stringent anti-realism.
But the silliness is tempered by too many other things- plots involving war crimes in Guatemala in 1981, corrupt politicians and Russian counter-intelligence agents. I was all ready, based on the misleading trailers, for a shit-blowing-up comedy- something fun and frothy to leaven the Oscar film season depress-a-thon. But this jerking between Willis pulling out one-liners, and discussing the murder of civilians in a Guatemalan village becomes awkward. It doesn’t help that the action scenes, though very good, are punctuated with meandering bouts of dialogue where the characters talk about “what it all means,” or “how they need to live a normal life” or whatever. It’s lazy characterization, it doesn’t lead to good comedy and it means there’s not nearly enough shit blowing up.
This wouldn’t be so frustrating, except for the wasting of a truly phenomenal cast. In addition to the considerable talent already mentioned, Helen Mirren plays a former “wetworks” agent from M-I6 (meaning she used to be an assassin) and John Malkovich plays a paranoid former agent who was given too much LSD by the CIA. These are not floundering starlets or brick-headed action stars. This is the woman who played Queen Elizabeth, and the man who, among other impossible feats, made “Con Air” an awesome movie. But even they could not save a film which changes moods like I change my socks.
That brings me back to that one perfect scene, where everything comes together and everyone does exactly what they’re good at. The music is good, the shots are beautiful, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s funny. I wonder if they shot this scene first, perhaps, or for some reason everyone was in a different frame of mind. If the rest of the movie had been like this scene it could be an outrageously funny form of escapism. As it is, the scene simply illuminates what could have been.
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