Someone wants to shorten Moses’ lifespan considerably in RED. RED is an acronym for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous,” which is what Moses proves to be (hey, it’s stamped right there on his file – in red). When several heavily armed men break into his suburban Cleveland home to kill him, Moses comes out of retirement and lays some extremely lethal defensive maneuvers on them. This is not a terrible thing, because it turns out that Moses was pretty bored in retirement. The whole attempted-assassination thing kinda brightened his day a bit.
After dispatching the assassins, he trots off to Kansas City, where he had a tentative date with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a bored federal employee in a pension-processing office with whom he had been kind of flirting on the phone. With armed men trying to kill him, he figures that he has to kidnap Sarah and take her with him, for her own safety. She grudgingly obliges, and admits that it’s not the worst first date that she’s ever had. What starts out looking like another quirky Mr. Wrong romantic comedy soon morphs into something else: an AARP buddy action comedy with a little love on the side.
Moses, of course, isn’t the only retired assassin out there looking for a little excitement. So it takes little effort to persuade his pals to come in from the pasture and join him in figuring out what’s going on and who’s responsible. His old buddy Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who is dying of liver cancer and spending his last days in a retirement home, wants to go out with a bang. (Will the movie oblige him? Who could say no to Morgan Freeman?) Paranoid conspiracy theorist Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich, dialing up the crazy, even for him) has a conspiracy theory to contribute – and he’s right! Ivan Simonov (Brian Cox) is an old KGB frenemy who is so bored with the tedium of post-Cold War bureaucratic life that he’s willing to switch sides. Victoria (Helen Mirren, having a fine old time) has a beautiful waterfront home in Maryland, but she really misses all the killing. Ernest Borgnine, who really is old enough to be retired (but happily isn’t), turns up a few times to wax nostalgic as the CIA’s keeper of super-duper-secret files.
Meanwhile, young CIA assassin William Cooper (Karl Urban) is hunting Moses, with a veritable army of heavily armed agents at the ready to wreak havoc. (If this sort of thing routinely happens in the CIA, they do a really good job of keeping it quiet.) Cooper doesn’t know that the anti-Moses conspiracy concerns some long-ago dirty business in Guatemala involving the vice president and his puppetmaster, a powerful defense contractor (Richard Dreyfuss) who bears a passing resemblance to a certain former snarling vice president with a bad heart (insert joke about him actually having a heart here).
That’s about as political as RED gets; the plot is really incidental. The point is simply this: “old” people shooting big guns, blowing things up and laying a beatin’ on young whippersnappers who dare to call them “Grandpa.” This is kind of how you imagine Clint Eastwood would spend his retirement, if he weren’t so busy making movies.
It is, of course, all in good fun, and RED – based on the comic books created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, and directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler’s Wife) – takes a cartoonish approach to the violence and everything else. The good guys mostly recover from gunshots fairly quickly; the bad guys and their minions mostly get blown to smithereens. It’s pretty simple, unsophisticated, zippy and darkly funny. RED doesn’t really have a message, or even much of a point; there’s nothing serious in there about the wisdom and value of elders, although apparently you can’t discount experience as a serious advantage in the spy game. Having big guns helps too. And you’re never too old to have fun vaporizing your enemies.
Maybe there is a message in there after all: Retirement is a drag, so don’t despair, all you Zoomers who watched your 401(k)s evaporate; you’ll be happier if you just keep working.
Syd’s picks: Check out The Queen from Helen Mirren’s amazing back catalogue
Have I mentioned how much I love Helen Mirren? With a career that spans six decades, she’s having a pretty great second half.
She won a well-deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006). Mirren manages to make the queen seem human – a deeply flawed, insensitive, stubbornly behind-the-times human, but human nonetheless. The thorns-and-all portrayal of Liz in The Queen makes the old girl unexpectedly endearing, and reveals the purposefulness behind her icy blankness.
Mirren crawls inside the seemingly impenetrable Elizabeth, and turns her inside-out in a way that is fascinating. Like the queen herself, the actress neither asks for nor expects sympathy or even empathy, but maintains the aura of toughness and nobility, of being above it all, that makes Elizabeth appear so untouched and unshaped by contemporary forces.
Any affection and sympathy that the actress earns with her fearless willingness to play the frumpy, disagreeable old queen as a frumpy, disagreeable, unsympathetic old queen actually transfers to the character herself. I had not expected to come away from The Queen feeling sorry for Elizabeth – let alone almost liking her – but such is the magic and forcefulness of Mirren’s performance.