We’ve seen a few notable trends in the past few years, regarding action films. The first is the return of the unself-conscious action flick- a little bit gratuitous, a little hyperactive and a lot of fun. We’ve seen Stallone play Stallone, Tom Cruise play Tom Cruise, and, um, Adrien Brody play Schwarzenegger, sometimes to great effect. The second is the appropriation of smaller comic book franchises for major studio treatment – see Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Wanted. And the third, seen in Gran Torino, Harry Brown and Wild Hogs, is the “old-guys have still got it” subgenre – old folks, usually men, show through the power of story that they still, in fact, exist.
In the new Robert Schwentke film Red, then, we should be three for three, and onto a winner. But Red fails to maintain its own level of defiant energy, and for but a few key moments remains an unmemorable blip on the action radar. The film’s setup is quite fun and breezy – Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), retired CIA, finds himself targeted by some very over-equipped special-ops ‘wet groups’, and embarks on a cross-country trip to get these guys off his back. Kidnapping, incidentally, his love-interest Sarah (Marie-Louise Parker, from TV’s Weeds) whom he had never before seen in person. This original tension between the two is promising, and indeed original, but is soon resolved in favour of some stunt casting and paint-by-numbers action sequences.
Moses sets out to “get the band back together”, the band being an idiosyncratic group of ex-agents including Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren. While Malkovich plays the paranoiac Marvin Boggs with relative ease, Freeman and Mirren are left with little to convey by the script, which falls back on those ‘back-in-the-game’, ‘still-got-it’ –type one-liners that often fall flat. Now, there’s nothing wrong with stunt casting, but the idea is that you play these actor/character hybrids to type. So we do get Willis playing Willis, and it’s very solid, but Mirren’s turn as ‘Helen Mirren if she talked about killing a lot’ doesn’t even spark as an interesting turnaround.
But I think that the major failing of Red’s action-spectacle plot is the lack of a consistent villain. While the faceless teams of the start and Karl Urban’s sinister Agent Cooper make for an exciting start, the conspiracy blossoms to include some less-than-stellar bad guys. The two central villains are not introduced until halfway, and subsequently fail to do much except be objects to be acted upon by the good guys. The one good villain is domesticated, and the rest are simply uninteresting. Oh, and Julian MacMahon got fucking old and bloated…
Despite the charms of the assembled cast, and the promise of some comic-style original violence, Red ends up rapidly changing pace, ignoring the potential for characterisation, and falling back on cliché. It’s OK for a film to grin knowingly at you, but if it’s going to grin this smugly, it better be for a reason.