REVIEW: Prestige Cast Narrowly Saves Red From Its Own Tacky Taste

Movieline Score:

A decadent action romp that isn't quite as fun as it should be, Red mixes high and low with a mad chemist's abandon. Although the picture invokes the popcorn pleasures of pulpy romance fiction, its muse is the world of comic books: Adapted from a graphic novel written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Cully Hamner, Red is given a hyper- and yet unimaginatively stylized treatment by director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler's Wife). The kicker is in the casting: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Brian Cox and Helen Mirren all come out to play.

The film opens with a genial if slightly depressing look at the life of Frank Moses (Willis), a bachelor who lives in a sterile split level and tears up his pension checks as an excuse to call Sarah (Parker), his claims agent. Parker, that rare actress who can blush on cue (or still blush at all), gets to make her fabulous baby eyes while Willis, who is looking strangely drawn and sexless in middle age, plays the bashful long-distance suitor. They talk avocados, trips and reading material. "It's so bad," Sarah says of the new trashy novel she's reading. Giving us a taste of what's to come, she adds, "I love it."

The extended opening, with its clappy score and humdrum phone flirtations, is a shameless feint: When a troupe of ninja assassins infiltrates Frank's house in the middle of the night and he wastes every last one of them without wrinkling his boxers, Red clicks into genre mode, hard. Frank is ex-CIA, and someone wants him dead, which means they want anyone he talks to dead as well; naturally, Frank flies down to Kansas City and kidnaps Sarah for her own good. "Don't think that I don't know this is crazy," Frank says to his heavily duct-taped would-be girlfriend. It's the first of many self-conscious line readings, which along with a repertoire of smash cuts, whip pans, and whiz-bang sound cues work to pump the film with adrenaline. The result is like a sugar rush after a visit to the vintage candy store.

Which is nothing to sneeze at! Bring on the Lemonheads! Schwentke draws out the introduction of each member of Frank's old crew, pausing each time to maximize the ironic hilarity of Morgan Freeman ogling a nurse in his retirement home, or John Malkovich living a paranoid post-CIA existence literally underground. Together they figure out that it is actually the home team hunting Frank down: A New York Times reporter unearthed a story of a Guatemalan war atrocity that the CIA helped to cover up in the early 1980s; now that reporter and almost everyone she talked to has turned up dead. An agency thumbsucker named William Cooper (a hawkishly intense Karl Urban) takes the lead on Operation Toast Frank Moses, trailing Frank and his ever-growing posse around the country. The hunt has its moments, as when Willis coolly steps out of a car still in mid-donut, his guns blazing. Malkovich also has a ludicrous spaghetti western faceoff with a thermal missile-carrying female agent, and there is a spectacular hand-to-hand showdown in Cooper's office after Frank (with the help of Ernest Borgnine) draws -- from a vault that doesn't officially exist -- the files he needs to explain the Guatemalan incident.

Of course none of this officially exists, though the film's uneven combination of deep and often exhilarating silliness (Cox's Russian accent and Freeman's French one come to mind, along with Mirren's winter camo jacket) with pointed political scenarios may disrupt even the most ardently suspended disbelief. Part of it is a problem with the baggy storytelling, which never manages to assert itself over the novelty casting and glib set pieces; the film seems capable of going in any direction at any time.

The other part of it is the touchy place where that unpredictability takes us: Frank traces the chain of command right up to the top, passing a gnashing cameo by Richard Dreyfuss (as a corrupt financial overlord) on the way. I wasn't even close to being born in 1968, and I still found the chaotic, bullet-riddled pursuit of a presidential hopeful through a hotel kitchen to be too soon. Obviously, we're far from the neo-noir nihilism of The Ghost Writer or even the sober pseudo-realism of the Bourne trilogy. But can a film whose redoubtable hero marks the vice-president for death still qualify as candy corn? To pull off its startling endgame without compromising the tone of sunny irony it strives for, Red would require an audience that still lived -- or only ever lived -- in the permanent midnight of 2005. And that, thank God, is unimaginable.


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