All-star cast not enough to save graphic-novel adaptation

Oct. 12, 2010
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They slipped into his home like shadows, the masked hit squad sent to kill retired CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis). But he’s ready for them, naturally, and after dispatching dozens of his foes, Frank sets forth on a cross-country trek to discover who’s after him. Along the way, he gathers up retired colleagues from the CIA and MI6 who, like him, are marked for death.

Based on the cult graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, RED (that’s “Retired and Extremely Dangerous”) calls together the season’s greatest all-star lineup. Along with Willis, the AARP agents include Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich. Alas, this gold reserve of talent is squandered, spent on a picture pasted together from clichés. Each actor plays a paper-thin version of his or her persona. There’s Willis’ quiet menace, Freeman’s merry gravitas, Mirren’s prim efficiency and Malkovich’s squirrelly madness. The whole is decidedly less than the sum of its potential.

The problem comes from how to transpose a graphic novel to the screen. Despite the prodigious body count, the minds behind the movie adaptation opted to play the story with a light, almost frivolous touch. Stripped of darkness and pathos, RED becomes a kinetic display of unimpressive pyrotechnics and post-Matrix special effects. Do we really need to see those slow-motion bullets again? It looked much cooler the first time—in 1999.

What RED the movie preserves is the political paranoia—the idea of deadly conspiracies at the highest levels of the U.S. government—coupled with a sense for the value of gray-haired experience. “With age comes a certain perspective,” Frank observes. In keeping with that theme, it’s a pleasure to see Ernest Borgnine in a cameo as a feisty archivist deep in the bowels of CIA headquarters.

In more adept hands, the movie could have been a meditation on aging, but the film moves too fast for meditation and turns into little more than a battleground between the retirees and the under-40 operatives pitted against them. Sadly, in playing the story as comedy, the adaptation fails to be much fun.n


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