2.5 stars out of 5
There are many ways that films in Hollywood get green-lit and fast-tracked to the cinemas.
Sometimes, they entail great scripts or grand directors’ visions. Or sometimes, one suspects, they may just be predicated on tantalising casting decisions.
Tootsie was a chance to have Dustin Hoffman in drag – a concept repeated by Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire. Meet the Fockers was a golden opportunity to have Barbara Streisand play an overly sexual Jewish therapist.
Batman and Robin carried the prospect of having George Clooney in a bat suit with rubber nipples. (Ok, maybe that one wasn’t such an inspired decision.)
Here, in amongst an eclectic cast, one of the biggest talking points in the film’s development must have been the choice of classically trained ‘serious’ actress Helen Mirren – she who has portrayed a number of British Queens – as a former assassin.
The Helen Mirren. Mirren, the Oscar-winning Shakespearean actress, in a Bruce Willis action flick looking pleased as punch to have an automatic weapon in her hand and firing away to her heart’s content.
On paper, it’s money. In still photographs, it’s still money.
In reality, however, it’s one of the offbeat ideas contained within RED that threatens to take off, but never really does.
Based on a graphic novel of the same name, this is an action-comedy that frequently strives for high-octane action paired with deadpan / offbeat kookiness.
Willis, Mirren, Malkovich and the thoroughly underused Morgan Freeman are all retirees from the spy game – ones who presumably cut their teeth in the Cold War.
The plot starts off with Willis’ character crushing big-time on a customer service agent (Mary-Louise Parker of Weeds fame) – he tears up the pension cheques she sends just so he can call her, and they proceed to read chick-lit together.
When he survives a deadly assault on his home, he has to drag her along while dodging an endless stream of killers. Puzzled and annoyed, he enlists the help of the other old fogey ex-spies.
Hot on his tail is a young hotshot agent (the likable but stiff Karl Urban) who is sort of the Tommy Lee Jones (circa The Fugitive} of the piece: he doesn’t care what Willis and his mates did to get on the wanted list – he only wants to catch them.
For a film trying its darndest to be off-kilter, original and funny, it turns out alarmingly conventional and scattershot.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the old guards have enough tricks up their sleeve to stay ahead of the game; RED, the film’s title, refers to Willis’ status on CIA files as “retired, extremely dangerous” – it may well apply to his associates as well.
It’s great that this film didn’t venture into Hudson Hawk territory; that would have been too far gone in search of indie cred. But then this film, in my opinion, just didn’t go far enough.
Parker’s character, originally feisty and bewildered at being unwittingly caught up in espionage, turns into a simpering schoolgirl seemingly overnight. There’s little or no logic to that transformation.
Disappointing, but then she’s just a supporting part. Among the principals, the marginalisation of Freeman is the most egregious. He is simply on long enough to enable the plot, and his screen friends, to proceed to the concluding third of the film.
Willis practically sleepwalks through his role – a role he’s played innumerable times – leaving veteran performers Mirren, Malkovich and Brian Cox, as former Russian intelligence, to try to keep the film afloat.
Despite their best efforts – some good lines here and there – many of the film’s deadpan comedy bits end up dead in the water. Some scenes are remarkably drab, with pregnant pauses that don’t make an impact, the camera kept rolling perhaps in hope more than anything else.
With the quality of talent on hand, there really should have been more chemistry and memorable interactions. In the end, everyone is a caricature with little reason to stay in one’s consciousness after the credits roll.
In that respect, it resembles The Expendables. All the ammunition, in terms of talents, is present and accounted for, but there’s no big bang.
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.