‘Red’ Isn’t Ready to Retire

Red -- Dir. Robert Schwentke (Summit Entertainment) -- 3 STARS

My mother once told me that almost all of current American culture is centered on baby boomers, generally regarded as those born between 1946 and the late 1950s. When boomers started having kids, she says, people started talking about the best way to raise kids. When the boomers’ babies started going to college, people started talking about the high costs of college.

My mother also told me that the boomers are in denial about getting old, her explanation for the explosive popularity of erectile dysfunction drugs. I’m not entirely sure about the truth of her theory, but the movie “Red” makes a lot more sense when considered in that light, especially because the first generation of boomers will begin to retire in January of next year. “Red” is a glorification of retirees and a testament to their desire to remain young.

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is a retired black-ops CIA agent whose house is blown to pieces when he is attacked by a government-issue hitman (Karl Urban) for reasons unknown to him. Of course, he turns to his old friends, played by Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, and John Malkovich, for help, and numerous artillery-heavy adventures ensue on the way to finding out the truth behind Moses’s near-elimination. Eventually they come to the conclusion that they must kill the Vice President of the United States, and the movie turns into a variation of Ocean’s Eleven (or any heist film).

Willis, Freeman, Malkovich, and Mirren are perfect in their roles as unbelievably skilled former-CIA agents. As Moses, Willis is in top shape in “Red,” always one-step ahead of his opponents both physically and mentally. He manages to make Urban look small and unskilled in their fight scenes— “You just got your ass handed to you by a goddamn retiree,” says the hitman’s boss.

Freeman’s character is dying of cancer in a nursing home, but he still commands a domineering presence. Similarly, Malkovich, starring as a hilariously paranoid, armaments-obsessed man, is one of the sharpest tools in the shed. Mirren is perhaps most fearsome in her role, pumping out machine gun rounds with elegant ease and killing men without the blink of a perfectly made-up eye. With these particular actors in the roles of super-spies, “Red” places retirees on a pedestal. Because of their age and experience, these characters are always smarter, faster, and badder than any of the young whippersnappers that they have to contend with. In the same way, the older, more time-tested actors are simply better in their roles than the younger actors in the film.

Speaking of younger actors, the inclusion of Mary-Louise Parker as Willis’s love interest in the film is an odd choice. In reality, Parker and Willis are about 10 years apart in age, but the film conveys the sense that Parker’s character is much younger than Willis’s through her speech, dress, and aversion to Willis’s bald head. Her purpose in the movie is unclear; she seems to either function as a reminder that the other main characters are much older than she is or as a layman suitably impressed by how cool and crazy the older spies are. Her chemistry with Willis is unconvincing, probably because the circumstances of their meeting are so ludicrous, but her comedic skills are on par with those she employs in “Weeds,” especially in the early scenes when she is duct-taped, bound, and driven across several states, furiously protesting in the face of Willis’s patronizing calm.

Maybe Frank Moses’s love for Parker’s character represents his love of youth and his desire to continue to live a young life, even with the perks of experience and understanding that come with being older. And maybe the comedy that imbues the film is a mask for the more serious specter of aging and death that haunts the main characters throughout the film. After all, when all is said and done, “Red” is about what really matters in life when death is dangerously close.

But despite its thematic material, “Red” is not a film targeted solely at baby boomers, despite my mother’s conspiratorial thoughts about American culture. All ages and demographics should get a kick out of the film, and most will probably wish that they could be badass enough  to be classified “Retired, Extremely Dangerous” in old age.

—Staff writer Araba A. Appiagyei-Dankah can be reached at aadankah@fas.harvard.edu.

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