Oh my God, they’ve shot Dame Helen Mirren! Realizing the Oscar-winning actress is playing a part, and not herself, the thought nonetheless is inescapable when Mirren’s ex-CIA agent takes a bullet in RED. I mean: How dare they?
“RED” stands for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous,” though “Reasonably Entertaining Diversion” works too. For an hour or so, this PG-13 adaptation of a far grislier graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner strikes an engagingly sadistic tone. Bruce Willis brings his uber-relaxed authority to retired good-guy assassin Frank Moses, whose former employers are trying to kill him for reasons vaguely specified. He gathers the old gang together for one last showdown against those trying to off them. The string-puller is a sniveling industrialist (Richard Dreyfuss) using the CIA as “his own personal hit squad.”
We have been here before. We were here most recently in this summer’s high-priced junker Knight and Day, in which secret agent Tom Cruise kidnapped Cameron Diaz and eliminated hundreds of disposable assailants on the government payroll. In RED, Frank kidnaps the pension employee played by Mary-Louise Parker, whose character is gagged, tied to a bedpost (in a strategically low-cut outfit) and dragged around like groceries. But she’s a fine sport and grows to love the adventure. The actress’s uniquely twisted comic timing helps this movie’s sense of humor overcome its lust for gunfire.
Mirren adds the class as Victoria, former paramour of the Russian ally played by Brian Cox, whose performance proves there’s no ham like well-cured Scottish ham. Morgan Freeman twinkles as an old fox dealing with cancer and the confines of a retirement home — depressing stuff after the life that he led. John Malkovich wackos around, wittily, as a CIA colleague who went through one too many LSD experiments. At one point Malkovich bats, baseball style, an airborne missile back at his attacker, who is summarily disintegrated. If the movie proves successful at the box office, this sight gag will be the reason why.
Screenwriters Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber expand freely on the bare bones of the Ellis graphic novel, inventing a new back story (something to do with Guatemalan war crimes) and lightening up the protagonist. In the original, Frank is a hollow shell who, it’s implied, assassinated John F. Kennedy. Little of that sort of thing has survived the page-to-screen translation. Frank isn’t a dimensional character any more than the characters in Angelina Jolie’s Wanted were characters. Graphic novels offer their cinematic adapters a pre-storyboarded look, along with plenty of ideas of how bullets entering skulls can make a pretty red splat on the nearest wall, plus a hint of a story to satisfy our old-fashioned need for narrative.
But there are limitations — serious ones. Movie adaptations of graphic novels as disparate as Road to Perdition and Sin City can seem awfully thin. Around the midpoint, RED starts repeating itself and spinning its wheels and looking for an ending, well before the ending arrives. The actors have considerable fun with it, though I can’t be the only one who would prefer not to see another movie containing the line “Wow. You really are CIA!” until the summer of 2011.
—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: firstname.lastname@example.org