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Entries in Red (2010) (1)

Saturday
Jul062013

Red (2010)

Bad Guys Go "Boom!"

Red is another in a disturbingly long line of movies, allegedly aimed at adults, that is only entertaining if you don't know how movies work. That's not a dig at the audience, but at filmmakers who should care enough to not skate by on a great cast and more gunfire per minute than Quentin Tarantino's entire filmography.

Bruce Willis stars as Frank Moses, a retired CIA super-agent whose quiet life of over-the-phone flirting with pension clerk Sarah (played to maddening, ditzy perfection by Mary-Louise Parker) is interrupted when he becomes the target of a government conspiracy. After taking out a black-ops team, Frank grabs Sarah and hits the road, on a mission to recruit his old crew of badasses. Among them are a paranoid whack-job (John Malkovich), a saucy MI6 agent (Helen Mirren), and Morgan Freeman, playing himself (not really, but he might as well be).

Hot on their tail is current CIA super-agent-in-training William Cooper (Karl Urban), whose orders are to shut down what he has been told is a cadre of flipped, dangerous criminals. As the plot unravels and the bodies pile up, Cooper learns of the mysterious "Guatemala File", a dictionary-thick account of an early-80s operation that was scuttled when a young soldier went off the rails, killing untold number of innocent villagers. That soldier grew up to be the Vice President of the United States (Julian McMahon), who is now very interested in expunging all traces of the incident from public record.

Yep, I've just parachuted you into Spoiler Country--kind of. If you've never seen Red before, you'll thank me later. Of course there's another level to the conspiracy, and of course Moses and his geriatric A-Team will emerge from their ordeal (mostly) unscathed. But it's important to know that this movie does, in fact, have a central villain and a narrative through-line; otherwise, you might wind up like me, constantly reaching for the "STOP" button out of fear that the film really is just a montage of Bruce Willis and company smirking through phone calls, shoot-outs, and gags that wouldn't make it out of Larry the Cable Guy's writers' room.

The central problem seems to stem from everyone involved thinking that Red is a run-of-the-mill comic-book movie (i.e. processed food for mutants). It was indeed adapted from a miniseries by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer. But screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber (who would go on to "write" Battleship) and director Robert Schwentke don't appear to have actually read beyond its elevator pitch. Ellis is a smart, darkly funny comics author who is no stranger to wanton destruction and nutty characters. But he also knows the rules of laying down a solid story and establishing a consistent tone. The clowns who adapted his work do not.

Note: I'm going to use my own recipe here in describing genre filmmaking's secret sauce, so feel free to substitute your own favorite ingredients. I hope you'll get where I'm headed.

In order for a movie like this to succeed, it has to at least be better than Sneakers, Phil Alden Robinson's 1992 movie that covers pretty much the same ground. That was also a comedy, as well as a dramatic, pseudo-heist movie. It's characters were weird and charismatic, and faced an impossibly powerful enemy. But the filmmakers never let the complexities of their intricate plot, cool gadgetry, and action scenes slow down the story's forward momentum.

In Red, we have no idea why Frank Moses is a character worth rooting for, other than the fact that he's played by Bruce Willis. We're asked to stay engaged with an antagonist who, for most of the movie's run-time is an ominous file (and its sidekick, the deadly List; I swear to God I almost jumped out a window after the fifth time someone said, "All the other people on this list are dead! Don't you get it?!"). When the real villain finally shows up, we have no reason to believe he's evil aside from other peope having said as much for the previous hour-and-a-half. As it turns out, he's a bad dude, but not nearly as bad as the guy really running the show--whom we'd been told earlier on wasn't running the show. Quadruple sigh with a shot of rye.

The lack of a strong (or even discernable) villain casts a pall over the rest of the movie, precisely because his corrupting influence appears to be restricted to one or two people, besides himself. This means that every special-ops assassin, cop, CIA agent, and other government official that Moses and company shoot, stab, pummel, and blow up are ostensibly good people doing their best to combat terrorism.

They don't know that Malkovich chasing after them is meant only as a comedic scare tactic; they believe shooting Freeman in the heart is akin to stopping the next 9/11; and when Moses makes a phone call from Cooper's house, threatening to kill the nice, young family playing in the back yard, there's no reason for Cooper to even consider that the guy on the other end really has the world's best interests at heart. Take out Christophe Beck's cutesy Ocean's Eleven-knock-off score and swap in that of, say, Heat, and you've got a completely different, completely terrifying movie.

But it's all played for laughs, you see. By the end, I was left wondering how a film so dependent on lousy government marksmen, inadequate security at CIA headquarters, and the audience's belief that one of the main characters would actually die five minutes after being introduced could have made it out of the script stage. My only answer is that the studio wrote it off as a funny-book movie from inception--which is precisely what fell off its rickety assembly line.