'Red': Willis, Freeman, and Co. Channel Van Damme ... and It's Bad


Summit Entertainment

Red, the new action-comedy—is there a more ominous cinematic term these days?—features performances by Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, Rebecca Pigeon, Karl Urban, and Ernest Borgnine. It may be that I've mislaid another star or two in the accounting; it's hard to keep track when a motion picture is so profligate with talent.

One would imagine that any movie boasting such a cast would inevitably offer its share of rewards. Alas, director Robert Schwentke offers yet another reminder that cinema is not arithmetic. When Schwentke made his American debut in 2005 with Flightplan, I described the film as an example of the Hollywood maxim that more is often less; with Red, the German-born director takes that maxim and expands it exponentially.

Willis plays Frank Moses, a former CIA superspy who has been declared—for reasons that will gradually become clear, if never quite lucid—"Retired, Extremely Dangerous." (Hence the title, which the film shares with the graphic novel on which it is loosely based.) Thanks to this unwelcome status, Frank quickly becomes the object of a gaudy but ineffective assassination attempt: afterward, as he walks out the door of his comprehensively machine-gunned house, the roof collapses, in a twist on the old hard-rode-jalopy-whose-doors-fall-off gag. Undeterred, he hits the road and gently kidnaps Sarah (Parker), a service rep at the firm that dispenses his pension checks. For months, Frank has been using said checks as an excuse to call and flirt with her; he worries that whoever is trying to kill him will realize that he "likes" Sarah, and make her a target as well. Sarah, for her part, though initially miffed at her abduction by a man she has never actually met, is soon pluckily committed to disentangling the murderous conspiracy.

As the two shuttle about the country—New Orleans to New York to Mobile to Langley to Chicago—they gradually pick up old friends (Malkovich, Freeman, Mirren, Cox) and new adversaries (Urban, Pigeon, Dreyfuss). There are the requisite reversals and betrayals, of course, and enough small (and-not-so-small-) arms fire to settle a mid-sized insurgency. (Red is to belts of ammo what The Departed was to the word "fuck" and its derivatives.) A gag in which Parker is rescued while sedated is borrowed awkwardly from genre sibling Knight and Day. And a lengthy procession of geriatric-assassin jokes—Malkovich boasting "Old man, my ass" after a shootout; Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle" blaring as Willis beats up a younger agent—offers a chilling portent of what lies in store should soon-to-be-ex-Governor Schwarzenegger ever return to the big screen. But in the end, the greatest surprise--mild spoiler alert, for those who don't know what "already has a terminal disease" augurs in this narrative context—may be that the implicit moratorium on the non-ironic killing of lovable, nonwhite sidekicks has apparently expired.

Though Willis has a longstanding knack for blending action and humor, his smirky appeal is uncharacteristically muted. It may be that, at 55, playing the toughest guy in the room leaves him with little energy left over for cracking wise. Parker is as endearing as usual, but her performance amounts to little more than a collection of familiar tics: the wide, doe-eyes, the nervous nips of lips and tongue. Worse, the two stars show no meaningful sign of romantic combustion: Even the opening scenes of telephonic banter, intended to sell us on their long-distance chemistry, are stubbornly inert.

With the exceptions of Mirren (the Dame is game, as always) and Urban (Star Trek's McCoy, doing what he can with a limited role), the rest of the extravagant cast seems at a loss as to what, exactly, they are doing here. Malkovich, evidently unaware that the A-Team movie has already been cast, shot, released, and consigned to the bad-memory drawer, offers what appears to be a tepid audition for the role of "Howling Mad" Murdoch; Cox hams his way through a borscht-thick Russian accent; and Freeman looks as if he has finally wearied of the avuncular persona that will put his great-great-grandkids through college.

There is some appeal, I suppose, in the A-list, B-movie "slumming" aspect of the whole enterprise, in watching celebrated sexagenarians get in touch with their inner Van Dammes. But the novelty soon wears thin. And at a moment when Hollywood's unintentional lack of quality is everywhere to be seen, a deliberate cultivation of the same loses much of its luster. Near the midpoint of the movie, Mary-Louise Parker, commenting on the mess the gang has gotten itself into, grumbles, "This is so bad." By the end, though, she has reversed herself: "Can you believe it? It all worked out."

I fear she had it right the first time.