These two steal what's there to steal.

Film adaptations of violent graphic novels should be one of the few reliable vestiges left for wacky, cinematic blood-letting. That Robert Schwentke’s effort to adapt Warren Ellis’ and Cully Hamner’s serious-minded comic series Red results in a fluffy, silly, 12A-rated mess should not be too surprising, given the helmer’s CV to date – containing the huge let down that was Flightplan and the daft The Time Traveller’s Wife – but it is no less a disappointment when he has assembled such a star-packed cast who seem very much up for it.

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is a retired CIA agent who is now living an easy, albeit also boring life. However, when a hit squad shows up to rub him out – in vain, as he kills them all – this changes, and he finds himself having to protect a potential love interest, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). While trying to evade the aggressive advances of younger, stronger CIA agent William Cooper (Karl Urban), Moses reaches out to his former CIA squad, consisting of his retired, terminally ill mentor Joe (Morgan Freeman), a paranoid, LCD-laced oddity named Marvin (John Malkovich), and a deceptively innocent-looking, former wetwork operative named Victoria (Helen Mirren). Together, they will either uncover the seemingly interminable conspiracy, or die.

With a cast this vast (and I haven’t even mentioned most of the villains yet), Red has a lot going for it out of the gate, but not even some pitch-perfect spots of casting can compensate for a script that lacks the source material’s grittiness, and is neither funny nor action-packed enough to justify the deviation. The best parts, invariably, are left far too long, and as this pertains to characters, Schwentke unfortunately deals with the most boring ones incessantly – that is, Willis and Parker’s characters – while not getting to the best ones – Malkovich and Mirren’s – until too late in the day. Malkovich makes his grand entrance a good half hour in and appears sparsely throughout, while Mirren doesn’t show her face until past the hour mark. Both parts are incredibly ripe and crowd-fodder in the making, but the script’s willingness to let them go nuts – for Malkovich especially is gagging for another Burn After Reading-type opportunity here – combined with a depressing surefit of set-pieces makes for an abject failure on the part of scribes Jon and Erich Hoeber.

Willis, meanwhile, plays pretty much the same hard-done-by action-hero character as always, albeit with a few revisions, chiefly that he rather amusingly reads trashy romance novels in order to connect with Sarah. The quirky infusion notwithstanding, Willis still works best as the no-nonsense force of physicality, with the odd Die Hard-inspired one-liner hitting the mark. More interesting to observe is Parker who, after putting in several years of fantastic work on Showtime’s Weeds has finally landed a prominent starring film role, and while her pairing with Willis is well-matched, the script once again categorically fails to place either of them as interesting, funny, or especially likeable (or even disliekable) people; they are perfunctory components to a perfunctory plot, and the attempts at exaggerating the situational absurdity through catty wordplay for laughs falls painfully flat.

Willis’ filmography especially has shown that action fare can be goofy and funny – just look at The Last Boy Scout – but here Schwentke goes overboard, overdirecting the silliness rather than incorporating it with subtlety. Its curiosity keeps us just about interested, but the film rarely raises more than a smile except, that is, in its more confidently overblown action moments. Constantly teetering on the edge of satirising a spy film, yet never going the full whack, Red is incredibly bemusing tonally; the fact that Karl Urban’s villainous character is so incredibly bland suggests an intentional facet to be plucked comically later, yet this banality follows through right to the uninspired resolution of his character’s arc, giving what is marketed as a postmodern spy pic an all-too conventional style and sense of narrativity.

Peppered throughout the generic, laboured breadcrumb-following murder mystery plot are a handful of moments best defined as “awesome” – playing baseball with a grenade for starters  – though the inspired madness of instances like this are few and far between. The murky dialogue, meanwhile, allows fine actors like Brian Cox (as a Vodka-swilling Russian) , Richard Dreyfuss (a slimy corporate douche), and Morgan Freeman (the aforementioned retiree) to barely even chew through the scenery, let alone set it on fire with their inherently charming screen personas.

The lack of urgency is a killer, but Helen Mirren’s eventual appearance is a real highlight and keeps the second half interesting, resulting in the film’s best moment, as she grabs a mounted machine gun and lets loose on the faceless horde of baddies. Rather amusingly, she is the toughest of the bunch without being at all developed as a character. Conversely, though, Red has a few misguided pretensions to characterisation as it nears its close; rather than develop the interesting leads, we catch glimpses at Cooper’s kids, which feel misplaced when his character is so mind-numbingly dull. Why the film suddenly and desperately attempts to extrapolate sympathy from an antagonist so late in the game again shows laziness on the part of the screenwriters; the film has not, with its vacuous preceding hour, earned the right to jarringly try and shoehorn in some pathos.

Curiously low on action and thrills, though intermittently spliced with the odd good laugh or silly explosion, Red is mostly corny, been-there-done-that material. It might have worked better as a more self-deprecatory (and smarter) version of The Expendables – the tease of a Dirty Dozen-style climax where the old coots start getting picked off begins promisingly, but lacks the necessary body count or scope of emotion to make the grade. What’s more, the finale’s pragmatic post-shootout solution lazily projects a sequel to come.

Red is a film we want to like; it features talented actors – some branching out, some sticking to what they know – clearly having fun, but the feeling does not transpire to the viewer because the script is so insistent to make Red a run-of-the-mill, oddly soporific cheese-fest.


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