Thursday, October 14, 2010

Supporting players give 'Red' a boost

Bruce Willis with one of his friends.

The idea behind Red - another movie derived from a graphic novel - is intriguing enough. Suppose a group of aging spies were called back into action. How would they handle the strains and stresses that result from fighting off younger foes?

In order to explore this question - or maybe just to make another action movie with a fair allotment of humor -- director Robert Schwentke has been given an A-list cast: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Brian Cox and Helen Mirren. There's more weight in those marquee names than in anything else in this sometimes amusing, but ultimately overwrought action yarn. Like so many movies, this one eventually degenerates into the usual cacophony of gunfire and explosions.

Willis portrays Frank Moses, a top CIA agent who's living in retirement when the movie begins. A loner, Frank tries to establish a phone romance with a woman (Mary Louise Parker) who works in Kansas City. He travels to Kansas City to meet her, but the relationship hardly begins auspiciously. Frank winds up kidnapping Parker's Sarah and dragging her into a plot that has made him the target of an assassination attempt.

Frank is being pursued by a no-nonsense CIA agent (Karl Urban) who's under the thumb of an agency bigwig (Rebecca Pidgeon). Richard Dreyfuss turns up as a powerful industrialist. We all know industrialists are evil. Same goes for politicians, in this case represented by a supposedly corrupt vice president (Julian McMahon).

Perhaps in respect to his aging cast, Schwentke keeps the pace reasonable, and, particularly in the early stages, he allows humor to emerge in a minor key that can make the movie seem almost offbeat. Humor alert: The movie isn't quite as funny as surely was inended.
There's no question that the polished chops of actors such as Freeman and Malkovich, much funnier and more convincingly colorful here than in Secretariat, enhance the proceedings. There's kick in watching Malkovich go off the rails in Dennis Hopper-like fashion. He's playing a paranoid CIA agent who never leaves home without a stuffed pink pig. Of course, he can be counted on when the chips are down.
Mirren brings welcome assurance to an assassin who retired but still likes to take the occasional assignment. I read in an interview that Mirren was thinking of Martha Stewart when she conceived the role; it makes sense. Imagine a woman who knows flower arranging but also can be tough as nails.
Brian Cox plays a former spy for the Soviet Union. He's had a long-term crush on Mirren's Victoria. Totally understandable. They make a nice couple.
At times, Parker has little to do but tag along, and Willis does the kind of serviceable work that holds the movie together. It says something about Willis' generosity that the supporting players essentially eclipse his performance.
It's possible to stay involved with Red, even as the plot begins to shred amid complications that are more ridiculous than funny. All in all, Red stands as a so-so effort - albeit one with tasty bits and an old-pro cast that would make any director drool.

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