Sunday, November 7, 2010

“Red” – Ernest Borgnine is still alive!?

Do you know why the title of this movie is “Red?” At first glance, it doesn’t seem to make any sense. What does red have to do with a bunch of old assassins? From the previews, we know that all of the main characters are retired assassins. Hmm…maybe it’s really an abbreviation for retired and they just left out the apostrophe: Re’d. That title still doesn’t make much sense, since it doesn’t really fit the idea of assassins. By now, you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this. It’s because this was the conversation I was having with myself before I saw the movie and it really bothered me that I couldn’t make any sense of this title. It was also coloring my expectations of this film in a very negative light. The best I could make of it was that it referred to the amount of bloodshed we would see throughout the film. Prepared for another over-hyped movie based on a graphic novel (there really are a lot of graphic novels out there), I went in expecting nothing more than two hours of explosions, gunfire, and bodies.

Almost immediately, the film showed me something I was completely unprepared for: Mary-Louise Parker. I had no idea she was in this movie and my attention was immediately peaked. I’ve liked Parker since her days on “The West Wing,” and though I haven’t seen “Weeds,” I hear she is very good in it. What’s more important is that she is the main character of “Red.” Not Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, or Helen Mirren – all of whom I’m sure got paid more than Parker in this film.

The film begins with Frank (Willis), a retired CIA assassin, going about his daily, boring routine. This routine includes the only highlight of his day – calling the government pension office to complain that his pension check has not arrived. In fact, he tears the check up so he has an excuse to call Sarah (Parker) who works at the pension office. This is also the highlight of Sarah’s day, as she gets to tell him about the places she’d like to go, fantasizing about being caught in a spy/romance thriller, imagining that maybe he is the one she could go with. This also becomes the theme in which the movie is presented, as each place they go to is preceded by postcards for each destination. It seems kind of cheesy on the surface, but it plays very well into the mood of the film, which is the opposite of evil conspiracies and tense action sequences.

Frank’s routine is shattered when a hit-squad tries to kill him at his house. Naturally, Frank kills all of them and walks away unscathed. He goes to Sarah’s apartment and kidnaps her to keep her safe from the people who want him dead. This is the point in the film that determines whether it will be good or bad. We have the set-up and the main plot of the film, but will the rest of the film play out like most other action films? Lots of shooting, car chases, zero character development, more shooting, exploding helicopters, a plot that dissolves like wet bread, and even more shooting? After all, the movie is about assassins.

Thankfully, the writers and producers weren’t terribly interested in just another “high-octane thriller” and they were equally uninterested in making another Bruce Willis action movie. Like I said, he’s not the main character and Parker makes sure that we don’t forget this. She’s one of the rare actors who can say things without actually opening her mouth. Her reaction to Frank appearing in her apartment, followed by the kidnapping, portrays how important she is to the success of the film. Up until Frank rescues her from the real bad guys, she is simultaneously scared, confused, and excited; a feat that very few actors could pull off. As the film moves along, she continues to charm the audience by timidly going along with Frank and his buddies, gradually immersing herself more and more as a part of the team.

Since the story is centered on Sarah, the film is forced to defy traditional action films by not trying assault the audience with mindless violence. There are action sequences, but they don’t overpower the film. They are well-placed and serve to propel the film forward rather than simply fill up space and provide jobs for special effects companies. For the most part, they aren’t over the top, with the exception of one scene in which Marvin (Malkovich) faces off with an assassin wielding a rocket launcher. This was only scene in the film that was subpar, due solely to the fact that Marvin stands there while she reloads and only fires once the rocket is on its way. This is the only concession to stupidity in an otherwise smart film.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is that it features many well-known actors, yet doesn’t fall into the trap of pampering egos. In addition to Parker, Willis, Malkovich, Freeman, and Mirren, the supported cast includes Richard Dreyfuss, Karl Urban, Brian Cox, and Ernest Borgnine. How Borgnine’s body is still functioning on its own surprised me as much as that he is still a solid actor. He’s what, 127 years old now? Amazing.

Anyway, what makes the film work is that Parker and Urban are the highlights of the film. Not only do they turn in fantastic performances, but the rest of the cast does their best to support them. Maybe it’s because all of them are old enough (or rich enough) that they don’t care about ego, but it allows them to connect with each other with such comfort and casualness that their performances are all effortless. This transforms what could have been just another typical action movie into an extremely entertaining, humorous, and delightful film.

Obviously, my preconceived notions of this film were proven completely wrong, but there was still the matter of what the title means. As it turns out, it’s an acronym that is used to describe retired assassins – Retired, Extremely Dangerous. It’s a good thing they distracted me with Parker right off the bat or I might have spent two hours wondering if there was a title more stupid than that.

Rating: Parker’s performance alone is worth the ten bucks. The rest of the film is paying you back for all of the bad movies you’ve seen lately.

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