October 15, 2010

CANADA: Granny, Get Your Gun

VANCOUVER, British Columbia / The Vancouver Sun / October 15, 2010

Action flick finds humour in tale of
retired Cold War spies pressed into duty

By Katherine Monk, Postmedia News

Red is the movie The Expendables probably wanted to be: a funny tip of the hat to Cold War foes and aging operatives who find themselves sharing information and the odd dance through a hail of bullets. It's a good hook, and exploits the James Bond films with great results, because it's nice to know secret agents eventually go home to domestic lives -- just like the rest of us.

The only problem is, super spies make very poor retirees.

They have a hard time sinking into the leatherette recliner to watch their toenails grow. Certainly, that seems to be the case for Frank Moses.

When we first meet Frank (Bruce Willis), he's waking up in his perfectly nondescript suburban house. He makes coffee. He punches the punching bag. He gets the mail and eats his eggs and bacon. The coffee table is bare. So are the walls. Frank has absolutely no flair for home decorating.

Either he's an ex-con or else he's recently divorced, but he seems to spend his time talking to a government employee (Mary-Louise Parker) about some missing cheque. Frank seems like a super bore, but behind those twinkling blue eyes lies a mystery, and by the time his white picket fence is reduced to splinters by a hit squad of masked men with automatic weapons, we're putting the pieces together.

Frank is a former secret agent who took down governments and shaped global politics at the end of a well-disguised gun. Now, someone wants to eliminate him. This doesn't seem like a huge surprise to the ever-composed Frank, but he is baffled about who it might be.

He needs to catch up with whatever story is unfolding in the hallways of power, and in order to do that, he needs to reunite with some of his old buddies, including the complete wackjob with a paranoid bent, Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich).

Any story about "getting the band back together" comes with two bonus elements: The first is narrative ease, because the device comes with a built-in sense of intimacy. Second is the opportunity for character-based humour: Establish the characters' respective types, then watch them squabble and compete for attention using their antipodal personalities as the comic engine.

Director Robert Schwentke ( Flightplan, The Time Traveler's Wife) does exploit the narrative gifts at his disposal, and he does it well, because he seems to understand the whole pull of Red comes down to character.

We're fascinated by Frank Moses because he's the aging warrior who never lost his heart. While Frank is the epitome of personal control, his friends are suitably unpredictable.

Malkovich gnaws his role to the bone as the nutty camouflage specialist with a trigger-happy streak. Morgan Freeman plays the noble martyr with a slightly kinky edge and Helen Mirren plays the matronly former femme fatale who used her sexy wiles to save the world. It's a dynamic mix and every one of these veterans does their job to perfection, but what gives this otherwise solid content an extra boost is the humour. Unlike The Expendables, which lived in denial of the aging process and looked ridiculous as a result, Red wraps itself in the passing years as the characters look back on their lives -- and realize all their hard work and personal sacrifice probably amounted to nothing.

Politics consumes the righteous for breakfast, and all these warriors should be poached eggs by the second act because some high-ranking politico played by Rebecca Pidgeon wants them all eliminated. Assigned to carry out her orders is a young and very scary G-man played by Karl Urban. In the first encounter, Urban's William Cooper feels like the liquid metal villain from Terminator 2. He barely blinks when his Suburban is broadsided and he stages a suicide without a moment of hesitation before kicking out the chair. There are times when the movie seems to walk into itself -- usually because the viewer is two steps ahead of the plot -- but even when that happens, it's funny and not frustrating because Schwentke keeps the tone adjusted to the graphic novel source material.

He creates a highly entertaining piece of action spectacle from the genre fixtures.

* Starring: Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman.
* Directed by: Robert Schwentke.
* PG: Violence, coarse language
* Running time: 112 minutes
* Rating 3 1/2 out of 5
Release: October 15, 2010

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun