“Red” (2010). Robert Schwentke, director. Summit Entertainment, 111 minutes.

Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen

Part comedy, part romance, and one hundred percent action, “Red” is a thoroughly entertaining ensemble film, featuring four Oscar winners (Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman) and several nominees. It isn’t likely to win any awards, but it is winning big accolades where it counts–at the box office.

 Frank Moses (Bruce Willis–no Oscars, but one of the most durable actors in Hollywood) is a former CIA agent who wakes up at 6 every morning on the dot, without an alarm clock; downs a handful of vitamins for breakfast; and heads downstairs to work out in his home gym. He’s a man with a strict regimen, even in retirement. After a hit team suddenly invades his home and literally mows it down with a relentless spray of bullets, he reassembles his team of “RED” agents (Retired, Extremely Dangerous) to thwart the assassins. 

Like John McClane, Bruce Willis’s alter ego in the “Die Hard” series, Frank brings along an innocent bystander as his reluctant sidekick. Sarah Ross (Mary Louise Parker) works as a clerk in the US Pension office by day and reads romance novels by night. She longs for adventure. Now she is living in one. Terrified and titillated at the same time, she is the perfect foil for Frank’s cool aplomb with both barrels blazing.

The film’s upbeat soundtrack by Christophe Beck, heavy on the organ, recalls another great ensemble piece, “Oceans Eleven.” But while the Oceans films often focus a little too heavily on the chumminess of the actors, “Red” is an ensemble piece of the highest order. Despite the presence of so many Oscar winning actors (or maybe because of it), this film avoids the diva-led pitfalls that doomed Sylvester Stallone’s geezer ensemble film, “The Expendables,” earlier this season. Each character in “Red” is developed with skilled professionalism, allowing Jon and Erich Hoeber’s fine screenplay to shine.

Morgan Freeman plays a brief but important role as Joe Matheson, a former CIA agent who helps Frank figure out why they are on a Company hit list. Ernest Borgnine, veteran of nearly 200 films, seems content in his role as the kindly records keeper deep in the basement of the CIA. Richard Dreyfuss also plays a pivotal role with an under-abundance of time on the screen, demonstrating that these actors know the key to a good movie is a good story, not face time. These actors never outshine the characters they play.

Lovely Helen Mirren is outrageous as the oh-so-perfect assassin turned society hostess. Dressed in a stunning white gown and combat boots, she calmly wields a machine gun almost as big as she is with a steady hand and a steely eye. Can this be the same woman who won an Oscar for her portrayal of frumpy Queen Elizabeth II two years ago? She’s delicious.

John Malkovich is the ultimate study in paranoia as Marvin Boggs, another RED member of Frank Moses’s former team. Subjected to government experiments with LSD during the sixties, Boggs is both brilliant and crazy. He lives in a Florida swamp inside an underground bunker accessed through the hood of a ’57 Chevy. Who wouldn’t love this guy?  His character makes us laugh, but feeding his paranoia is a chilling element of truth: Big Brother is always watching, and if he wants to find you, he will.

What draws us to films about government assassins? The bullets of course. And the grenades. And the hot car chases. And Bruce Willis stepping out of a car in mid-fishtail with a rifle cocked and ready to shoot. In slow motion. And the plot that invariably involves government corruption, of course. Like Sarah, the innocent sidekick drawn into the fray, we get a vicarious thrill from entering the adventure.

Years ago my father put himself through college by working as a repo man. If people didn’t make their car payments, my father would come and repossess the car for the bank. Every night he would put away his books, don his black turtle neck sweater and dark slacks, and head out to the poorer side of town where he would sneak down alleys, break into garages, and hotwire cars. Sometimes the owners would try to stop him, and the chase was on. My father loved the thrill of pretending like he was a car thief, knowing that he had a legally binding repo order resting on the clipboard in his pickup truck.

In many ways, these CIA action films fulfill the same urge. We can identify with the good guy and root for the assassin at the same time, because the assassins are only doing their patriotic duty. I’m not so sure I buy the argument of guns over diplomacy, but I sure do enjoy the films, especially when they are executed as well as this one. “Red” is a winner.

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