Comic-book movies and action movies have so much in common: the unrealistic action, the loopy characterization, the WTF-laden plots. But now that more straight-up action movies are being made based on comics, the two genres have merged. Exhibit A: Red.
Red, opening today, is loosely — and we stress, loosely — based on a three-issue miniseries by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, about a retired assassin on the warpath. The movie turns this story into an uber-fluffy romantic comedy, but — like other recent comic-book action movies like Wanted and Kick-Ass — keeps a comic-booky visuals and attitude. There are splashpages on the screen, pretty regularly — moments that appear to be a cinematic attempt to capture the impact of a full-page drawing.
In Red the movie, Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, a retired CIA "analyst" who was actually a kind of super-agent. Frank doesn't literally have any superpowers, except in the way that Batman and James Bond have superpowers. You can shoot a million bullets at him, enough to ruin the structural integrity of any nearby buildings, but Frank won't even have a scratch (he does get hit once, to be fair). And Frank is literally unstoppable. So when the CIA sends a hit squad to take him out, Moses goes on the offensive. Along the way, he kidnaps the woman he's been courting via phone (Mary Louise-Parker, in an engagingly kooky turn) and reunites with his old colleagues (Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and — much too late for my liking — Helen Mirren.) And yes, somebody says the "we're getting the band back together" line.
The whole thing is entertaining fluff, not nearly as dark or nasty as Wanted but also a bit funnier. Like a lot of these sorts of comedies, it's a million times funnier when it's not trying so hard to be funny — which is a good bit of the time. It's definitely in the tradition of "heightened reality" where everything is a bit over the top and any amount of thinking on the part of the audience is overthinking.
All in all, it's a pretty sturdy comic-book movie — like a lot of these sorts of films, the first half hour is utterly brilliant, and then there are a few great set pieces later on. There are also some saggy bits in the middle, where people talk about the plot. (It has to do with the Cold War.) And I have to confess something here — John Malkovich used to be one of my favorite actors, and in the past decade he's become one of my least favorite, as he's become more and more self-parodying. If you feel the same way, Malkovich's role here will bother you. If you don't, it probably won't.
On the other hand, Helen Mirren is in top form as a kick-ass sharpshooter who dispenses romantic advice. And Karl Urban is absolutely riveting as the film's nominal villain, and the whole time I was watching him and listening to his guttural snarl, I couldn't stop thinking how great he'll be as Judge Dredd. And Ernest Borgnine turns up in a cameo! Ernest Borgnine!
So yeah, anyway this is the latest development in the convergence of fluffy action movies and fluffy comic-book movies — now that we all know that superheroes don't actually need to wear garish spandex (thanks to Wolverine) and ridiculous action has gotten away from the slightly more "realist" mode of the Bourne movies, the categories are going to get even mushier in future. If Red is anything to go by, then the result will be a pleasantly mediocre romp with a superb opening and some nifty set-pieces. Not bad at all.