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Ensemble Action-Comedy Scores

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Red, Robert Schwentke’s (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Flightplan, Tattoo) loose adaptation of Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s comic-book miniseries, certainly has the talent to succeed commercially and critically. It features four Academy-Award winners (Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine), an Oscar-nominee (John Malkovich), and an Emmy-nominated actress (Mary-Louise Parker), not to mention an actor entering his third decade as a box-office star (Bruce Willis).

Red (“Retired, Extremely Dangerous”) centers on Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a fifty-something, ex-CIA operative/assassin. Monthly phone conversations with a benefits administrator, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), are all that stand between Moses and a monotonous, tedious future. When a government hit squad targets him one night, Moses realizes his less-than-idyllic retirement will be short-lived unless he discovers who is after him and why they want him dead. The CIA tasks Cynthia Wilkes (Rebecca Pidgeon) and William Cooper (Karl Urban), an ambitious field agent, with finding and eliminating Moses.

Realizing he’s placed Sarah inadvertently in danger, he scoops her up in Chicago before attempting to contact former members of his CIA team (also retired). Moses finds Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) living semi-happily in a nursing home. He finds Victoria (Helen Mirren), “the best wetworks asset in the business,” according to Matheson, living comfortably in a rural estate. Moses finds Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), living as a survivalist in Florida. He also turns to one-time nemesis Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox), an ex-Soviet spy, as a potential ally.

Red departs significantly in tone from Ellis and Hamner’s comic-book mini-series, going light — often very light — where Ellis and Hamner went dark. The comedy is mostly verbal and more hit than miss, but where Red falters is in the frequent transition from action to comedy and back again. Schwentke plays the action mostly straight, with only the occasional humorous aside or incongruous element (e.g., Victoria’s weapons expertise). When the bodies fall, as bodies usually do in action films, the appropriate response, laughter or non-laughter, is often unclear. A PG-13 rating also limits, if not eliminates the depiction of violence, making the violence in Red inconsequential.

Red makes up for its tonal deficits through a cast that obviously enjoys itself. The chemistry is always convincing among the various cast members. Willis doesn’t exactly stretch as the ever-resourceful, quip-at-the-ready, ex-CIA agent Frank Moses, but that doesn’t matter much. Seeing Mirren, however, an Academy Award-winning actress, drolly delivering her lines as a jaded, cynical ex-CIA weapons expert/sniper goes a long way toward elevating Red from the merely passable to the highly watchable. Cameos by the still-alive Ernest Borgnine and the still-working Richard Dreyfuss, Academy Award winners both, also add to the entertainment quotient.

All that chemistry would have gone to waste, however, if Schwentke’s direction wasn’t up to the task of handling Red’s action set pieces. Thankfully, it is. Schwentke’s direction is never less than efficient. Sometimes it’s even inspired. It’s always, however, lucid, clear, and understandable, something that can’t be said for most action directors currently working in Hollywood.