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Non-Review Review: RED

The way that society treats its elderly makes for great fodder for films. After all, what happens to us when we climb over that hill – when we make it all the way to retirement and cease to contribute in the most conventional manner? Will anybody care? Will anybody notice? It’s something that will (hopefully) happen to a lot of us, but it’s not necessarily something we give a lot of thought to – perhaps because we wouldn’t be too comfortable with the answers we’d find. “I never thought this would happen to me,” Joe Matheson confesses at one point as he strolls around “Green Spring Rest Home” with his old colleague, Frank. When Frank asks what he means, Joe elaborates, “Getting old.”

Up to their old tricks...

What happens when James Bond grows old? I don’t mean when the concept itself gets old – that was fundamentally explored in GoldenEye. I mean the man himself. This is a character who faces death in some sort of heroic spectacle every morning, well aware that he might not make it home that night. How would somebody that accustomed to living dangerously survive in retirement? How boring would the days spent around the house seem?

Frank Moses is a retired CIA spook. He lives in a nice suburban house and has a nice suburban routine. Almost everyone he knows is dead and, even then, you don’t tend to stay in touch in that line of work. He’s still fit and sharp and capable, but he’s just been cast aside. When somebody asks “Why was he retired?”, the response comes back, “He got old.” That’s the system that we all live in, one which says that you cease have any capacity to contribute when you reach a certain point in your life, even if that’s all you know. At its best, RED is sorta like Up, but with spies. Unfortunately, the film isn’t at its best very often. Anyway, the film essentially follows Frank when he as tagged as R.E.D. (Retired, Extremely Dangerous) and is set up for a more permanent form of retirement.

We're lucky to have actors of this caliber...

I can’t help but get the sense that Robert Schwentke was a poor choice as director. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very good with all the cool spy stuff. I’m actually not being sarcastic when I say that he manages to make even pulling a photo out of a dossier look cool. He handles the action sequences with aplomb – I do think the fight sequence between Frank Moses and the young upstart CIA agent ordered to eliminate him in Langley is one of the best hand-to-hand fight-sequences of last year – but he doesn’t seem to capture the banality of retirement that well.

The problem is that he’s a little too smooth, a little too practiced. He’s afraid to be even a little bit boring – the early scenes with Frank at his house are filled with interesting camera choices and clever cuts, but that’s not what these sequences need. He manages the humour of a retired spy very well, but there’s no sense of pathos or tragedy – we don’t share the oppressive sense of boredom that Frank Moses faces every morning he wakes up, and the dull routine which kills him a little inside everytime he lives through it. Instead, we find it amusing. So there’s no real engagement with Frank’s life and how it hasn’t turned out the way that he planned.

Where there's a Willis, there's a way...

So, while the direction of the film is all about the fun and excitement of everything, the script and the central performance from Bruce Willis are all about the tragedy. I watched the film with my parents over the weekend, and my mom made a very telling comment at one point as Frank received bad news. “Bruce Willis suddenly looked a lot older just there,” she remarked, and it’s true – Willis portrays Frank as a very lonely and pathetic old man who seldom affords himself a smile (and, even then, only for a moment or to), while the film is built around Frank as a conventional (if slightly older) action lead.

The result of the strange conflicts between these two very differing perspectives, the film lands somewhere in the middle. With the exception of a small number of scenes, the movie might aswell be your average, cookie-cutter actioner – which is all the more disappointing given its clever premise. There are one or two moments which capitalise on the film’s potential. My favourite is a scene where Frank visits the Russian Embassy for help, and meets Ivan – an old retired Russian spy played effortlessly by Brian Cox. Ivan is a tired old man. “I haven’t killed anyone in years,” he laments over a bottle of vodka. Frank acknowledges, “That’s sad.”

All right, kid, don't get Cox-y...

In fact, Cox appears to be having more fun than the rest of cast combined as he plays the foreign spy/dandy/lover with a self-aware charm and camp that just oozes through the screen. The climax of the film sees the old spies running one last operation, and they all play their parts. Ivan’s a relatively small – he causes a disturbance and then… clicks a pen. But Cox clicks that pen with such confidence that it’s almost the highlight of the entire film.

The primary appeal of the film is the cast, which – to be honest – is downright phenomenal. If the movie is about older spies getting to kick ass and take names, it’s great to see older actors and actresses getting the opportunity as well. Part of the movie’s giddy thrill, even if it never really carries it off as well as it should, is getting these big screen veterans together. Of course there’s Bruce Willis, but he’s joined by John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Ernest Borgnine, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Mirren and Mary-Louise Parker – all wonderful actors who are entertaining to watch in almost any context. So getting to see them do their thing in an action movie has a fun sound to it.

Snow escape...

Unfortunately, most of the cast are just “okay”. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (as most of the cast are great even on their bad days), but it is disappointing. Malkovich is entertaining as an unhinged former operative, but it’s not an especially strong performance (especially measured against his past work). Mirren is doing a paint-by-numbers performance. Morgan Freeman isn’t trying too hard, but that’s part of the appeal (as Morgan Freeman does effortless effortlessly). Bruce Willis is far more serious than the movie itself. Mary-Louise Parker is having a fun time though, as are Brian Cox and Richard Dreyfuss (“You don’t have people killed, I have people killed because I’m the bad guy!”). Sure, Dreyfuss is essentially playing a comedic (or more comedic, depending on how cynical you are) version of the role he played in W., but let’s not complain.

The younger cast members, especially Karl Urban and Julian McMahon, seem a little lost and overwhelmed – but perhaps that’s part of the appeal. This is, after all, a movie about how the older generation are frequently outwitting their younger counterparts. After all, life gives you experiences that you can’t get elsewhere, and these characters are certainly experienced. There’s something inherently charming about hearing John Malkovich utter the line of a seasoned veteran, “I remember the Secret Service being tougher.” That would have been the perfect moment for a Clint Eastwood cameo, right there.

Mirren is on semi-automatic...

RED isn’t a bad film. It’s actually a fairly decent action movie. The problem is that it never really tries too hard to be anything else. “Old spies” is a premise which practically writes itself, and it’s a shame that the movie never truly takes off. It’s an average action movie, but – given the combined experience of its cast – it should be so much more.

2 Responses

  1. I get your point about the director being afraid to let the beginning be banal. It would have added even more pop to the action later in comparison.

    • Yep, those early sequences are far too stylish. That shot of Willis looking around the neighbourhood as Christmas comes is a good shot (technically), but it’s too exciting and too engaging for a movie about a character who is meant to be bored to death. It felt like Willis’ portrayal was just at odds with the direction, and hoping it would balance out.

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