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October 16, 2010


Why is Bruce Willis so awesome? Helen Mirren nails it: because he’s all hard on the outside, but on the inside he’s positively gooey. When Willis brings the badass moves and backs them up with the wisecracks (Die Hard) or the goofy sensibility (Hudson Hawk) he can’t go wrong.

In Red, Frank Moses (Willis) has retired from the CIA, and he’s not having the easiest time of adjusting. How do you go from shutting down drug lords, terrorist networks, and even whole governments to hydroponically growing an avocado in your spare time over a Cleveland winter? He’s gone from high gear all the time to just spinning his wheels, and it doesn’t sit well with him. A life in the shadows also hasn’t left Frank with much in the way of friends or family. He gropes for a personal connection the only place he can think of: Sarah, the woman who handles his claims of missing pension checks (Mary-Louise Parker).

Unfortunately, someone has other plans, as he learns when a team puts enough automatic fire into his house to cause severe structural damage. And so, after a side trip to pick up Sarah in Kansas City, Frank has to figure out exactly who wants him dead, and why. Along the way he reassembles a team of similarly “retired and extremely dangerous” former colleagues (Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox). And of course, hijinks ensue.

The movie is based on a three-issue comic book miniseries from 2003. And as a film it proves yet again the one central truth of comic book action movies: comic book fans are incredibly oversensitive whiners. Every time Hollywood comes out with a Wanted, or a Kick-Ass, or now a Red; the reviews pour in about how it’s a pale imitation of the vaunted illustrated source. So can we put this to bed right here? comic book action movies are not comic books. They do, however, have a distinctive visual style which is inspired by (but distinct from) the language and conventions that have evolved on the printed page. If you’re going to a comic book action movie because you love comic books, you may well be disappointed. If you’re going because you like comic book action movies, that’s a different story.

And Red has that visual style all over it. The bright colors pop off the screen, and Schwentke puts the whole canvas to use in some brilliantly choreographed set set pieces. The pacing is great, with big bangs up front leading to a long burn with some great pops as it plays out. It’s never truly surprising, but it’s not really intended to be. To the contrary: each trope clicks into place exactly as it’s supposed to, and the finished product feels more like a finely-machined pistol than like the jury-rigged Rube Goldberg machine so many action movies become in retrospect. And every one of the actors is on the top of his or her game. While it’s true that a motion picture can’t quite capture a double-page illustration, it’s also true that a printed page can’t quite capture an expertly-delivered glinting eye. The whole thing feels very smoothly and cleanly packaged, and thoroughly enjoyable for what it is.

Worth it: Definitely. Just don’t complain about how it differs from the comic.
Bechdel test: fail. Sarah and Victoria (Helen Mirren’s character) have some “girl-time”, but they primarily talk about Frank.

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