Sunday, 31 October 2010


One of Hollywood's latest fads is rolling out the oldies, giving them a shooter, and expecting the audience to have a blast by default. It was exposed as a cynical formula in Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables/Expandables a few months ago, a film that was far too complacent and lazy for its own good (yes, Sly, you know lots of over-the-hill action supremos but where's the wit?) And now, with Red, we get The Ex-Pension-ables, featuring another seasoned cast groaning about age while shooting the scenery to pieces. And, to top it all, it's yet another graphic novel adaptation (Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner are the authors). The key difference is, Red is terrific fun.

But it's not just fun; it's one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Red stands for 'Retired Extremely Dangerous' - and as that pithy description suggests, the film itself has the capacity to surprise. Not content with coasting along on star recognition and then leaving its veterans high and dry with a damp squib of a script, Red understands how to have fun *and* give its cast substantial nourishment. The subsequent result is that we have a memorable time, as well. Don't pre-judge Robert Schwentke's latest on the money shot in the trailer of Helen Mirren laying waste to all and sundry with a Gatling gun; his film has much more up its sleeve than that.

Not least of which is the wonderfully offbeat central chemistry between Bruce Willis (who lunges out of a spinning car wielding a fire arm at one point to prove he still has it), and Mary Louise Parker (TVs Weeds). Willis is retired black ops agent Frank Moses, flirting with Parker's Sarah Ross, who provides his pension cheques. But no sooner has he eliminated a squad of goons who lay waste to his house that Frank is forced to kidnap Sarah for her own safety, and reunite his old team to find out who was responsible for the hit.

The ensemble may invite some eye-rolling: Morgan Freeman does the twinkly-eyed avuncular act as Frank's mentor, Joe; John Malkovich is mad as paranoid Marvin, and leaps out dressed as a bush in his first scene; and Helen Mirren has clearly been drafted to bring some British thespian class to her prim assassin archetype, Victoria. But there are brilliant nuances within all the character sketches that keep the narrative snappy and edgy. Parker is the real surprise, moving from afflicted, gagged kidnap victim to clueless onlooker who relishes the thrill of the chase as she is whisked across the USA in search of the baddies.

Elsewhere, Freeman's deadpan response to a bag of fingers Willis has claimed off the failed hit-squad is hilariously, well, deadpan; Mirren's blend of clipped tones and poise with a rifle makes for a dangerously alluring character; and Malkovich simmers with that manic energy in the way only Malkovich can. And Willis? Well, he can do the bald, smirking thing to death but anchors the film with that effortless charisma. Yet, this isn't even taking into account the rest of the excellent cast who are all just as deserving of their name on the poster. Karl Urban's urbane agent is first seen, in a great piece of character sketching, juxtaposing a domestic phone conversation with an act of murder. Brian Cox and Richard Dreyfuss also have a ball as, respectively, Willis' Russian buddy and the potential villain of the piece.

It's worth emphasising 'potential' because the narrative takes great pleasure in clouding who the real villain is, presumably a by-product of the source material (as are hilarious outre touches like batting a grenade back to a unfortunate henchman). But while it zips, boings and bounces happily around its own universe, Red never threatens to disappear up its own backside. Far from the equivalent of waving a Hollywood star's bus pass in your face, Red invites you to board the bus, and partake in an exciting, engaging, fluid journey.

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