Classiest. Comic book movie. Ever. Not the best. Not the worst. Just the classiest — Helen Mirren (and Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich and Brian Cox and Richard Dreyfuss) can spruce up any pulp.
Based on a Warren Ellis three-issue toss-off, Red barely acknowledges its roots. The original was bloody and humorless — a straight-ahead tale about a retired Company hit man named Frank Moses who’s next on the CIA’s to-do list because he’s an embarrassing relic. (Frank eventually storms Langley, gutting all comers.) Its big-screen counterpart, written by the brothers who made a mockery of the graphic novel Whiteout (Jon and Erich Hoeber) and directed by the man who made The Time Traveler’s Wife (Robert Schwentke), is all grins and giggles. It’s messy but hardly gory. Goofy? That’s more like it.
And it’s absolutely, thoroughly enjoyable. Red rocks like some giddy mash-up of every movie ever made in which a hired gun yanks at his holster for One Last Stand to kill the one who brung him in the first place. Which is fine — nothing wrong with an affable movie about trained killers played by Oscar winners on paid vacation. It’s only afterward when you realize that nothing actually happened in between road trips and explosions.
But plot is hardly the point here. Red is a travelogue, its map to the finish line pockmarked with the occasional explosion and a few drops of blood as Frank tries to figure out why he, a retired agent, has rocketed to the top of the agency’s to-hit list.
Bruce Willis plays Frank, ex-CIA now living in Cleveland, where he whittles away the days in a snowbound, modest suburban home. Willis doesn’t have the deep-felt sadness of the comic’s grizzled, deeply wrinkled eccentric who just wishes to be left alone; his Frank is secretly itching to get back in the killin’ bidness. When the bloodthirsty, barrels-blazing Men in Black come calling at 3:30 in the morning, Frank is wide-awake and ready for them. The alarm clock has gone off — time to get back to work.
And so Frank begins his trudge across America to get the band back together again and find out what the what is going on. First stop, Kansas City, home of the government, retirement-check-sending drone Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), with whom Frank has had a longtime phone relationship. She loves her trashy spy novels; then, lo and behold, she’s living one. When Frank shows up, he brings with him tag-along assassins who think the two are in cahoots, and their long-scheduled date becomes a hostage crisis.
Parker is Red‘s version of Justin Long, the sidekick intended to add youth to a movie that pit-stops in a New Orleans retirement home, where Morgan Freeman’s Joe spends his time ogling nurses’ asses as they adjust the TV antenna.
Next stop, Florida, where Willis and Parker find Malkovich — an acid-damaged, mind-controlled, paranoid short fuse — living in an underground bunker accessible through a dead car’s trunk. In Washington, D.C., they find Brian Cox’s retired Russian spy, Ivan (of course), shooting vodka (of course) while reminiscing about the Cold War: “I miss the old days,” he tells Frank. “I haven’t killed anyone in years.” To which Frank replies, with tear-stained sincerity: “That’s sad.”
From there it’s off to Virginia and CIA HQ. Frank figures that the only way to find out why the Company is trying to kill him is to break in and, well, ask. The answer? Something to do with Guatemala in 1981, but hard to say. Even the man sent to finish him off can’t make head or tail of his mission.
It all ends with a big finish in Chicago involving the vice president, a hotel speaking engagement, and what may or may not be an assassination attempt featuring Mirren
This isn’t an old-fogey’s Ocean’s Eleven. It’s a comic-book movie. Heavy emphasis on “comic.”