At some level this is an unlikely franchise — it’s basically just an excuse for lots of quite famous actors to have a bit of fun and, for many of them, to do the kind of action film they don’t generally get to appear in — but as both this and its sequel RED 2 (2013) show, actors having fun can sometimes, very occasionally, translate to an enjoyable cinematic experience for the audience. It may not be thought-provoking or particularly original, but it’s good to pass a few hours with some laughs in the company of some pleasant people.
The key, of course, is the cartoonishness, and as with so many recent films, this one is based on a comic book. There are plenty of big action setpieces, but it’s all in aid of a very self-consciously old-fashioned story — something to do with the participants in a secret mission in Guatemala in the early-80s that went catastrophically wrong all being killed off to protect a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, which pulls us into that Cold War world of po-faced 1980s films like Salvador and Missing (one of the participants in that secret mission is played a familiar character actor from the 80s, James Remar), but with a comic cartoon spin. It’s a different way of lightly setting out the collusion of the US executive and military (not to mention the Soviets, who also show up here) with shady Latin-American governments in that era to further their own interests, the application of the military-industrial complex so familiar from, say, Oliver Stone’s films.
The cast is dominated by character actors, including Helen Mirren very much playing against type just by being in this genre (and no doubt she took the gig for the chance to do the action scenes), but also Brian Cox as a camp Russian spy, Karl Urban as an impetuous young CIA agent, and John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman as Willis’s fellow retired spies (“Retired, Extremely Dangerous” is the acronym that gives the film its title). There’s also a small role for Ernest Borgnine as an archivist, linking the film to the 1980s via a different route (Borgnine was a central character on the very much espionage- and military-obssessed, but rather less comic, Airwolf TV series). However, it’s the (comparatively) younger actor Mary-Louise Parker who walks away with the film as the viewer surrogate, Sarah, a regular woman holding down a job at a pension fund call centre, who coordinates a vast array of facial responses and sarcastic rejoinders to the ridiculous situations she’s put in. Some of these skirt all too close to a non-cartoonish world — as Frank, the main character, Willis breaks in rather creepily to Sarah’s apartment and kidnaps her (for her own safety), but the writers don’t shirk away from the implications of this (it’s not played as any kind of romantic gesture that will lead to their falling in love), and I think it’s handled as well as it could be, all things considered. For the most part though, Sarah has the upper hand even over the trained professional killers.
Already this year I’ve seen too many big blockbuster films that are filled with effects and whizz-bang boys-own nonsense but seem like joyless money-making enterprises (I’d say they were made more by accountants than filmmakers, but that’s too much of a cliché — I know some accountants and they’re lovely and interesting people, so I fear its the filmmakers’ fault). I’m hardly claiming that RED is not a money-making enterprise at heart, but at the very least it’s not joyless. It’s fun, and while thought-provoking moral conundrums can be nice, sometimes all you want from your summer blockbuster (or home video rental) is a bit of fun.
Director Robert Schwentke; Writers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (based on the comic book by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer); Cinematographer Florian Ballhaus; Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Tuesday 9 November 2010 (and on TV at home, London, Sunday 11 August 2013).