‘RED’ movie review: top cast led by Bruce Willis saves routine action movie

Robert Schwentke’s Red is a perfect little timewaster, slick and polished and packed with enough outlandish action to overcome the frequent exposition lulls. It’s breezy fun that feels entertaining enough while you’re watching, so-so after the credits have rolled, then all but forgotten a few hours later.

The cast saves it; in tone and plot, this is the kind of direct-to-DVD fare that might star Tom Berenger squaring off against Billy Zane. But no, Red gives us Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Brian Cox and Mary-Louise Parker squaring off against Karl Urban, Rebecca Pidgeon, Richard Dreyfuss and Julian McMahon. 

And despite the spoofy tone, none of them phones it in; the cast here is always interesting to watch, even if we’d rather be watching them eat dinner.

Willis plays Frank Moses, a retired black-ops operative who tears up his pension check each month so he can call Kansas and speak to Sarah Ross (Parker) about having another one reissued. 

His humdrum suburban life is interrupted when a CIA team pumps thousands of bullets into his house; Moses cooks up a diversion and makes quick work of them, but someone seems to want him dead.

Why do they want him dead? CIA agent William Cooper (Urban) takes the order from his handler Cynthia Wilkes (Pidgeon) without asking questions; he does some digging around, though, and Ernest Borgnine shows up to describe Moses and explain the film’s title: Retired, Extremely Dangerous.

Moses is also interested in finding out why he’s become a target, so after a quick stop to pick up Sarah (their phone conversations have inadvertently made her a target, too) he pulls together his old team to solve the mystery. 

There’s Joe (Freeman), currently living in a retirement home and dying of cancer; Marvin (Malkovich), paranoid and living by a swamp hut; Victoria (Mirren), who seems to have settled down quite nicely; and Russian agent Ivan (Cox), a former enemy and Victoria’s old flame. Together, this team of retirees sets out to kick some ass.

That’s a lot of setup, and then there’s lots of plot and exposition and a convoluted backstory involving a 1981 mission in Ecuador. And despite the movie stopping every few minutes to explain itself, it still doesn’t make sense, or at least enough sense to explain why some characters are shooting at others beyond the information that some of them are “good” and some of them are “bad”. The ending, in particular, feels rushed and unsatisfying.

The tone of Red is light and goofy, but the script seems to lack actual jokes (outside of the standby action movie one-liners); it seems as if director Schwentke is trying to distance himself from a semi-serious screenplay (that began life as a graphic novel written by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner) by reminding us that he’s in on the joke.

Had Schwentke took the source material a little more seriously, Red was equipped with the production values and star power to succeed where Stallone’s The Expendables had failed; as it is, it’s another action-comedy in the vein of The A-Team, The Losers, Knight and Day, Killers, etc., with the minor novelty of an old-age cast. In other words, it spreads itself too thin and plays out too broad to really appeal to any particular demographic.

Got two hours to kill? Red is worth watching for the cast alone. If only to see how much talent can be wasted in a mediocre fast-food product.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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