Red (2010)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 10/25/10
Director: Robert Schwentke
Cast: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Brian Cox, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfuss, James Remar

Wow. I never imagined that a middle-age wish fulfillment action romance would appeal to me, but "Red" managed to hit all of my sweet spots and be a ridiculous amount of fun. It's also one of the sweetest and most touching love stories I've ever seen. Based on a graphic novel of the same name, the story concerns a retired CIA agent named Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), who also happens to be the best operative the country has ever had. His current life is dull, lonely, routine, and utterly pathetic. The only joy he has is talking to a woman at the government pension customer service call center named Sarah (delightfully mousy Mary-Louise Parker), and their conversations help pass the time, boredom, and loneliness they each feel. Unfortunately, events conspire to shatter his peaceful life when he finds himself on a hit list, and some very powerful people want him dead. His innocent conversations with Sarah have put her in danger as well, so he sets out to protect her and find out who is trying to kill him. He enlists the aid of some other retired agents including Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marv (completely insane John Malkovich), and Victoria (Helen Mirren), and together they pull off an operation of epic proportions. Young and ambitious CIA agent William Cooper (tough and sexy Karl Urban) is a constant thorn in their side and a worthy adversary for Frank.

First of all, the characters are absolutely wonderful, and the pairing of Bruce Willis and Mary-Louise Parker is brilliant. Willis's self-effacing charm works perfectly with Parker's pained low esteem, and their interactions are frustratingly delightful. John Malkovich's character is the wild-eyed paranoid subject of a military mind control project where he was pumped full of LSD on a daily basis. He's totally crazy, but he's also extremely perceptive and a highly skilled soldier. His character simultaneously evokes pity, discomfort, compassion, and revulsion. Helen Mirren is the weapon master of the group, and her unflinching stone-faced intensity while mowing down bad guys is both exhilarating and bone chilling. The woman never blinks! It's creepy!

To complement all of these fun and eccentric characters is an engaging story and a healthy amount of extremely well realized and completely over the top action sequences. Fortunately, the absurdity of the action matches the characters' personalities and never seems outrageous or unreasonable within the context of the story. That's where so many other films fail. "Red" manages to quickly establish the rules of its universe and consistently adheres to them, which helps maintain suspension of disbelief. The visual effects are also handled in such a straight forward and matter of fact way, that they never draw attention to themselves and the characters never question the feasibility of what's going on around them. Again, context and consistency. If the characters don't make a big deal out of something, then neither should the audience. Brilliantly sound filmmaking all around.

While I generally abhor action comedies, and action comedy romances even more, "Red's" approach is so subtle and nuanced that it actually works. There's no "ha-ha" humor or steamy sex in the film, but there is understated love and laughter hiding just beneath the surface, and behind the pained and soulful eyes of the characters. It's also remarkable that with the exception of Karl Urban, the entire main cast is older than I am. Perhaps that's why I can relate to the film so well. Possibly the most shocking thing for me was seeing Ernest Borgnine show up as a CIA records keeper. Wait, he's still alive?!? Apparently so, and he's 93 years old now. Wow. All in all, an incredibly fun and uplifting outing that completely caught me off-guard with its charms. Definitely worth checking out if you're a middle-aged comic book geek.