They do still have it, it’s true. And if director Robert Schwentke and screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber had played to that, you’d have had a film truly worthy of Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, the co-creators of the DC/Wildstorm book, upon which the film is based. The tone of the adaptation is completely different for starters, sure – Bruce Willis’ retired CIA assassin Frank Moses isn’t a cold, relentless killer with room in his heart only for pensions clerk Mary-Louise Parker, before killing everyone in Langley for trying to off him in his retirement. The film’s Frank Moses instead has friends – the batshit crazy John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, who lives in a care home, and the deadly Helen Mirren, who although retired still kills a bit on the side. He cracks a bit wise, but the film’s Moses is still targeted for assassination by the CIA, here by up-and-coming CIA assassin Karl Urban, who is as unquestioning as Willis was in his youth and is no less deadly.
The movie fast becomes a good humoured road trip around the US, as Moses tries to stay one step ahead of Urban, who is in turn being controlled by nefarious people behind key figures in the CIA. Will he and his gang stay alive long enough to track down who’s behind the plot to kill them? It’s an awful lot of fun, with Malkovich’s excellent insane act (we need more of him on screen please), Freeman’s normal stoicism commanding every scene he’s in, and Willis is well enough cast as Moses, although the gleam in his eye was occasionally jarring (Sin City proved he can do without). The film offers some quite sharp commentary on age too, with the parallels between Willis and Urban clear, and Helen Mirren effectively stealing the show out from under the men, but for some unknown reason she and her male cohorts are only allowed to burn slowly on screen, rather than explode. You are granted what becomes a rollercoaster ride, sure, but it surely would have made better sense to have taken these larger than life personalities and let them off the leash. The first half of the film also suffers from far too little energy – it takes far too long to get to Malkovich and for the wisecracking to start in earnest; artist Cully Hamner imbued the book with more pathos than the film has, and with less plot to work with.
From the amount it’s earned, ‘RED’ has successfully made a statement about age in Hollywood. Willis and co couldn’t have been more warmly embraced by audiences both sides of the pond, and rightly so – it’s wonderful to see these greats so warmly embraced. It may not be a perfect film – Parker’s role for example is horribly underwritten and occasionally fully out of step with the characters around her, the dark rationale behind the book is ditched in favour of a generic conspiracy theory, and Willis could have been much truer to Ellis’ Moses, but the film gets right more than it gets wrong. Pity that its moments of real bite – Malkovich running with a suicide jacket at the vice president (Julian McMahon), pretty much any scene Mirren is in – weren’t more plentiful.