Sunday, January 30, 2011

Heavy Metal Thunder: R.E.D. (2010)

There's something strangely satisfying about watching Dame Helen Mirren fire round after round of heavy ordinance at bad guys. In the movie R.E.D. (just released on DVD – the title is an acronym for Retired: Extremely Dangerous), Mirren plays a retired CIA sniper who is forced out of her now-genteel life by circumstances beyond her control. The fact that she doesn't appear in the movie until the one-hour mark is one of this comic thriller's few problems.

At the start of the picture, we are introduced to Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a lonely, also retired, former CIA black ops agent who has fallen in love with the voice of Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), the woman at the benefits office that manages his pension. He is so smitten that he's practically a telephone stalker. She's kind to him, but she's also a little creeped out. After one of his phone calls, his house in a quiet residential neighbourhood is attacked by several assassins. (Yes, his house. The shooters essentially blast the shit out of the place, à la the 'let's shoot a million rounds into that truck' in the Clint Eastwood film, The Gauntlet). He dispatches the killers and then pops up at Sarah's house in Kansas City, insisting that her life is also in danger.

Here, the logic of the film veers off the rails. The first 25 minutes are a little incomprehensible. There seems to be no credible reason for Willis to connect the attack on him to Sarah and then deduce she is now in danger too. Perhaps it's on the cutting room floor. Essentially, he kidnaps her because she doesn't believe he is former CIA. (Does she not know what pension she's dealing with?) They go to New Orleans for no reason I can think of other than New Orleans looks good (except for those New Orleans sequences, the rest of the picture was shot in Toronto – it is fun playing 'spot the T.O. locales'). It's not until she escapes him and then is almost kidnapped by a New Orleans 'police officer' (Moses rescues her) that she finally believes him. As I said, the first 25 minutes are confusing. The attempts to kill Moses seem to be connected to a list of operatives who, many years prior, were sent into Guatemala to extract an American military unit, led by an unnamed rogue officer that supposedly annihilated an entire village. I think Moses was among them, or some old friends were (it really isn't clear) and I think Sarah had pension dealings with some of those men on the list, most of whom now dead.

Moses decides to reconnect with a handful of his former CIA mates, including the completely paranoid Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), a serene Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) and the previously mentioned, now-genteel Victoria (Helen Mirren). Once they meet up, they are all pursued by William Cooper (Karl Urban) and seemingly hundreds of other CIA agents. They set out to solve the reason the men on the list are being killed and get revenge on those who are trying...

Bruce Willis & Mary-Louise Parker (top); Helen Mirren & weapons
You know what? The stupid plot doesn't really matter. It's one gigantic MacGuffin. What matters here, and the thing that makes this rather slight film so pleasurable, is watching the entire cast having so much fun acting silly and firing weaponry. As I said, Mirren is clearly enjoying herself as she plugs bad guy after bad guy while wearing a string of beautiful coats or gowns. What is most intriguing about Mirren, and it's a subtle thing, is that as she fires bigger and bigger weapons and she never once flinches at either the noise or the ferocity of the hardware. (Sidenote: Alan Rickman, as the villain in Bruce Willis' first big hit, Die Hard, is only shown once briefly firing a gun because every time he pulls the trigger he always flinches and squeezes his eyes shut. Mirren could have given him lessons.)

Morgan isn't in the picture long, but he brings a majestic dignity to his role. Malkovich's over-the-top tendencies are well served here as the truly nuts former agent. The way he spits out a line, “Old man, my ass,” after he offs a much younger antagonist is priceless. Mary-Louise Parker is fine in the 'girlfriend' role. The actress has what I call crazy-eyes, and the look serves her well here as a person completely out of her element. Richard Dreyfuss is slimy as a corrupt businessman. Brian Cox, as Mirren's former Russian lover, is remarkably suave (since he usually plays scum in films like The Bourne Supremacy, plus he was the original Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter). Karl Urban (Star Trek, The Bourne Supremacy and The Lord of the Rings films) actually gives the most nuanced performance. At first, we think he's just another assassin in charge of bringing down Moses and his crew, but over the course of the film his character gradually and logically changes. It's actually a nice touch in a film where you don't expect much character development. Perhaps he looked around him, saw all the acting talent he was surrounded by and thought, 'crap, I gotta bring my A game.'

Karl Urban
And it really is a very high-powered and talented cast for such an innocuous movie. Generally well directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time-Traveler's Wife), the picture is a perfectly wonderful Saturday-night time waster because nobody in the entire cast phones their performance in. For some reason, everybody 'showed up’ and had a righteous good time. And that good time comes right off the screen. All that, plus Helen Mirren shooting guns. What could be better?

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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