Friday, October 15, 2010

Movie Review: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren Paint the Town "Red"

By Scott Tre

Action and comedy are two of the hardest elements to bring together successfully in a single film.  Modern blockbusters include heaping portions of both in order to fill out the requirements for so-called "four quadrant" films.  In the wake of the September 11th attacks, many media outlets predicted the impending "death of irony" as a reaction to the tragedy.  Well, reports of said death were greatly exaggerated as Hollywood has found new ways to implement humor into otherwise serious subject matter.  Movie violence always has and always will go over easier with audiences when it's coated in a sugary capsule of irony and/or humor.  In a society that looks to comedians like John Stewart to shape its perspective on current events and world issues, it is necessary to keep reminding them that it is all a joke.  Thus, the breaking of the fourth wall continues indefinitely.

In Red, former CIA black-ops agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is in retirement, living the sort of schnook lifestyle that would have driven Henry Hill insane.  His main source of entertainment is running a scam on pension services that enables him to flirt with a phone rep named Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).   After a CIA "wet team" tears his home to shreds during a failed assassination attempt, Frank anticipates that the next move of his unknown assailants will be to track down Sarah and grill her as to his whereabouts.  Frank finds Sarah and the two investigate the situation while on the run.  They uncover a conspiracy that requires Frank to seek out fellow retirees.  Cooper (Karl Urban), the CIA agent in charge of eliminating them comes to find out that they are much more than what he was lead to believe. Frank, Joe(Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), and Victoria (Helen Mirren) come out of retirement with both guns blazing, intent on avoiding a premature death at the hands of their former employer.

Red is an adaptation of the Wildstorm/Homage comics limited series written by Warren Ellis.  It shares a number of similarities with The Losers, also an adaptation of a comic put out by a DC imprint.  Both revolve around a group of operatives with the best military training imaginable.  Both are filled with characters who don't seem to take anything all that seriously.  Both feature excessive violence that is clearly not meant to be taken seriously.  The final and most telling similarity is that both achieve middling results as entertainments.

Visually, the films are are not identical but carry many of the same hallmarks: gimmicks that are meant to  keep things interesting.  Animated, three dimensional post cards are used to signify a change of location.  It is used similarly to how the Indiana Jones films employed the image of a red line tracing its tracks on a map of the world to signify globe hopping.  Unlike the Indiana Jones films, the method used in Red calls attention to itself.  It's meant to be noticed and laughed at, which is in keeping with the spirit of the film.  Slow motion is used to enhance the awe factor during key moments of action sequences as well as to elicit laughs by highlighting the implausibility of said physical feats.  As expected, it is all capped of with smart ass remarks courtesy of the main characters.

The action itself is staged well, though it is not distinct from other recent offerings in the genre.  Audiences are treated to a very effective and very brutal fight scene in an office.  It serves as proof positive that MMA style choreography has supplanted graceful and intricate martial arts fight choreography in the post Bourne Ultimatum era.  The larger set-pieces aren't quite as successful.  They are bigger but not necessarily better.  This is a phenomenon that holds true for the duration of the film.  The "wet teams" assault on Franks home is easily funnier, more suspenseful and more thrilling than any of the firefights that follow.

As for the acting, all of the principles do exactly what they have been known for their whole careers.  In recent years Bruce Willis has incessantly milked the "old man who is a lot more than he appears to be" shtick for all it's worth.  This time out he doesn't bother to find a new variation on it.  Ditto for Morgan Freeman and John Malcovich.  Freeman is just simply there, while Marvin is another one of Malchovich's stock weirdos.  This is were yet another similarity to The Losers makes itself known:  the film tries to conjure a chemistry and mood similar to that of Steven Soderbergh's Oceans films.  It is essential to understand that the boys are back together again and that they always come out on top.  Red never approaches that level of enjoyability, though its cast is likable enough regardless.

Around the hour and twenty minute mark, the story pauses for a much needed moment of deadly seriousness.  An interesting dynamic also develops between Frank and Cooper (Karl Urban).  It's too bad there could not have been more of these.  A fatal mistake made by many action-comedies is that ham fisted, self aware humor is poured on in excessive amounts.  This may take the edge off the violence and make make the film more palatable for general audiences, but it also robs the proceedings of any sense of consequence.  None of the humor feels organic.  No amount of slick film making can mask this, and usually only makes it all the more obvious how insubstantial the film in question is.  It's easy to say that movies like Red are not meant to be especially memorable, and that is the whole problem.  A film need not weightless to be diverting.  Hollywood seems to take it for granted that substance is the enemy of fun.

Red is yet another forgettable yet very mildly entertaining action comedy.  It is an example of where modern filmmakers seem intent on pushing this hybrid genre.  Some might say that genre fans and purists should simply pull the stick out, especially since the snarky tone is very much in keeping with the action classics of the 1980's.  To them I will point out the smart remark and humor laden films like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard gave us sympathetic protagonists and a sense of urgency.  Audiences were made to feel that what transpired on the screen mattered.  I defy anyone to say that they truly care about any of the characters in Red, regardless of whether or not they found them entertaining.  Go ahead, I'll wait.      


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