A veritable plethora of films have been made about the CIA’s putting out hits on former agents either to prevent them from giving away agency secrets or to punish them for something they may have done wrong while they were active in the field. Such films are usually quite formulaic in that they all deliver copious helpings of pyrotechnics and end with the targeted agents clearing their names.
The most recent entry into the-CIA-wants-to-kill-a-former-agent genre is “Red,” an although the storyline does follow the formula of such films, it is both atypical and original in that it offers a cast of superb actors and a script that skillfully intermixes some great action scenes with plenty of humor.
As the film begins, we meet Frank Morse (Bruce Willis), a Cleveland resident and former CIA agent who spends his days doing pushups, working out on the heavy bag, and making phone calls to Kansas City, where his pension checks are issued. Every time Frank calls the claims office, he speaks with a woman named Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), and he likes her voice so well that he begins inventing reasons to call her.
Life is fairly low-key for Frank until one evening when a hit team tries to kill him. Using the skills he learned while he was a member of the agency, he escapes and heads for Kansas City, where he kidnaps Sarah from her office to protect her because he realizes that the CIA isn’t above trying to get to him through her.
Frank soon realizes that he is going to need some help in staying alive, and so he decides to contact the former members of his CIA team, and they are quite a group. Joe Matheson is 84 years old and has stage four liver cancer, but he still is ready for action, and although Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) is hopelessly paranoid, he’s a crack weapons expert. Then there is Victoria (Helen Mirren), who lives in a beautiful mansion and is an expert with an M16.
After Frank reunites with his buddies, he decides the best way to find out why active agent William Cooper (Karl Urban) is pursuing him is to infiltrate CIA headquarters. Watching Frank and his group elude death while they are trying to find answers to why Frank has been singled out as a mark is consistently entertaining and constantly fun. And there’s plenty of action to satisfy those who enjoy gunplay. This movie has it all.
“Red,” (The title refers to Frank as Retired Extremely Dangerous.), which is based upon the DC comics graphic novels of the same name, offers very good escape entertainment. Of course Willis is a veteran of numerous action films, and he has been perfectly cast as Frank, who has lost none of the skills that made him a top agent. In addition to being extremely tough, he’s a wily veteran who proves to be a very difficult assignment for Agent Cooper to round up. In a recent online interview, Rebecca Murray asked Willis whether what made him think it was a good time for him to make another action film because he already had made so many of them.
“I always question whether it’s the right time for anything because I rely a lot of times on my own choices for the stories I’ve had and the scripts that I like. This film was always ambitious right from the very start. It could have just been defined as an action movie or as a comedy or as a romantic comedy and the studio and the story always was about them and stayed there, and it always felt ambitious. Everyone you talk to that sees the film the guys would say, ‘It’s an action movie,’ and some people say, ‘It’s a comedy,’ or ‘It’s a romantic comedy.’ But it weaves all these things together in a way that doesn’t move you off of liking the action or liking the comedy or liking the romance or it being a romantic comedy. So it seems, creatively, I am pleased with this choice.”
And when Murray asked Willis what attracted to him to the film, he replied, “I was talking with Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the producer, about this, I think, two years before we started shooting. There was never any way you or I could ever have imagined the richness of what a film could be that has a huge cast of characters in it when all those characters are played by actors you already know and I was already a fan of for a long time. I was excited all the time. One thing that’s going to be talked about a lot more is just the phenomenon of having this many actors and this many movie stars in a film being told, a good story, and telling an ambitious story that’s fun and funny and has action in it and is very satisfying.”
Willis is right to pay tribute to the other stars in this movie because all of them are simply magnificent. Academy Award-winner Freeman is wonderful as the oldest member of the team who refuses to let his illness prevent him from participating in one last adventure, and his impersonation of a foreign dignitary is a show stopper.
And Academy Award-winner Mirren and Academy Award nominee Malkovich are absolutely hilarious their respective parts. Seeing the elegant and sophisticated Mirren wielding assault weapons is a real hoot, and several of the action Malkovich’s action scenes are so funny they defy description. Add Parker’s portrayal of the wide-eyed naïf Sarah to the mix, and you have a superb ensemble cast.
“Red” (Let’s give it an 8.) is a perfect film to give you a two-hour vicarious high as you hang out with Frank and his buddies. And although the title stands for Retired Extremely Dangerous, it the letters can also sum up the film as being a Really Entertaining Diversion.