Director: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren
Runtime: 111 mins
In between the releases of heavy literary adaptations The Last Station and The Tempest, Dame Helen Mirren has found herself firing machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket launchers in Red. The value of seeing Queen Elizabeth II put on a menacing expression amidst explosions and shoot-outs manages to be more than just novelty. If we’re familiar with her reputation as a serious, period-drama actress, it’s a piece of ingenious casting whose comic value is handled expertly by actress and director, rather than just a cringe-inducing cameo. In an action-packed slice of wish fulfilment, she fits in with startling conviction.
It’s a minor part, but, paradoxically, her performance is essential. Without it, Red loses its main selling point. The film is about a group of ex-spies who someone wants dead; retirees who are forced to show off their ass-kicking credentials. Mr and Mrs Smith similarly gave an action scenario a twist that relied on our knowledge of the stars; but here Mirren is really the only amusingly incongruous figure, the only person who we don’t think of as an action hero. Bruce Willis is still appearing in Die Hard sequels and Cop Out, and his Lucky Number Slevin co-star Morgan Freeman recently made lots of people chuckle by yelling “Shoot this motherfucker!” to a band of assassins in Wanted.
Bruce Willis’ Frank Moses is the first of the gang to nearly die, initially from boredom and then from a gigantic assault on his home. He immediately tracks down Sarah Roses (Mary-Louise Parker), the pension service phone operator whom he speaks with regularly. He kidnaps her for her own safety and calls up on the old members of his black-ops team before they can be assassinated, whilst having to fend off the attacks of young agent William Cooper (Karl Urban) and the protests of the dismayed Roses.
It becomes clear that a conspiracy is behind the hits, and Red seems to divert from its comic book original by blaming this disrespect of the elderly on political and corporate corruption. Such a resolution is unimaginative – though, like most of the film, isn’t taken too seriously. Most of Red’s jokes that rely on slapstick and comic fight scenes are superior to the weak dialogue, which fails to elevate the main romance between the comically named Moses and Roses beyond the supposedly quirky. For those who like seeing its actors in pretty much anything, the film is serviceable, and I quite enjoyed seeing Rebecca Pidgeon and a grinning Ernest Borgnine in small roles; but watching John Malkovich run around screaming as a volatile, paranoid ex-CIA man only reminded me of his turn in Burn After Reading, a much wittier take on the spy genre.