RED Review

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)
RED Review
Good, breezy fun, RED, which opens wide across the US today, is satisfying as throwaway entertainment, but it's even more interesting as a pluperfect example / warning signal of what can happen to European directors who want to make films in Hollywood.

Director Robert Schwentke, born in Germany, made his feature debut with TATTOO in 2002, a dark and tasty serial killer movie. It was pulpy and propulsive; the glossy sheen of the photography played in counterpoint to the ghoulish details of the death scenes, and August Diehl gave an edgy performance as the lead investigator. Schwentke, who penned the script, had previous experience writing for the venerable German TV show TATORT, and it felt like he'd stored up ideas until he could make his own movies.

His next film, THE FAMILY JEWELS, a comedy about testicular cancer, did not make as many stops on the festival circuit as TATTOO, and all I knew about it at the time was that pre-screeners at the festival where I worked had turned two thumbs way down.

In any event, Schwentke next turned up as the director of the Jodie Foster vehicle FLIGHTPLAN, a potentially decent thriller that was totally sabotaged in the third act by the demands of transforming an ordinary mother into an action super-heroine (among other problems). Around the time of the film's release in the fall of 2005, I spoke with someone who knew Schwentke and expressed my disappointment that his US studio debut was so impersonal. The other fellow said simply: 'He always wanted to work in Hollywood.'


His follow-up four years later was a complete shock. THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE was a soapy romance lacking any narrative snap; not even my abiding love for Rachel McAdams could salvage it from the depths of mediocrity. It seemed that Schwentke's deep desire to work within the Hollywood system had erased any trace of the promise that his first feature had shown.

Or, perhaps it was an inability to get any of his original scripts / projects off the ground that prompted him to take on a white bread melodrama. We all have to eat, after all, and, if nothing else, THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE proved that he could produce a glossy piece of work., soulless as it might have been.

Taking all that into account, RED could be seen as a comeback of sorts. It's a tale of four spies who been retired before their time, four people with vim and vigor, four people possessing the rare grace of killing others without a spot on their conscience.

Based (evidently quite loosely) on the three-issue comic book series by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer, RED begins with Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) bored out of his mind in retirement. His only apparent point of human contact is Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), bored out of her mind in her employment as a payroll clerk at the spy agency. He tears up his monthly retirement check just for the opportunity to talk with her on the telephone for a few minutes.

When assassins come calling on Frank, he goes on the run, picking up Sarah along the way to reassembling his old black-ops team, which includes crazy Marvin (John Malkovich), wise Joe (Morgan Freeman), and elegant Victoria (Helen Mirren). He is chased by the very decent Cooper (Karl Urban); villains include Rebecca Pidgeon and Richard Dreyfus, with Brian Cox falling somewhere in the middle and Ernest Borgnine making much more of a cameo role than his few minutes on screen might suggest.

If this all sounds like a safer, broader version of THE EXPENDABLES, that about nails it. Where RED stands on its own, it's in the robust flirtations between Willis and Parker, Malkovich hamming it up for all he's worth, and, most of all, the exquisite, iconic imagery of Helen Mirren firing a sub-machine gun.

As far as the filmmaking goes, Schwentke stays out of the way. It's anonymous entertainment, but it's the work of a craftsman who's as good as the materials he's been given. In the case of RED, Schwentke gets to work with a marvelous cast of old pros and a solid screenplay that often teeters into very good territory, and he delivers.
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