Comic book adaptations seem to work best when they pick a comic book no-one's really heard of. The Losers was an adaptation of a comic book I'd never heard of. So was Kick-Ass. X-Men was an adaptation of a whole bunch of comic books I'd heard of. So was Iron Man 2. Actually, I'm missing the point here. If a comic book gets famous enough that I've heard about it before the movie comes out, that usually means that it's mutated out of control and that it's too self important for its own good, full of back story and mythology and the lord knows what all. The small scrappy ones I've never heard of just get on with their jobs and do whatever it was that one or two people wanted to do. Lots of personal visions are really best kept that way, but collective visions are - well, X-Factor is vast telephone-voting-enabled shared vision of what celebrity for nonentities ought to look like, do I need to put together a powerpoint deck?
Anyhow, I'd never heard of RED before the trailer hit me between the eyes a couple of months ago and gave me something to look forward to. They had me with Bruce Willis stepping nonchalantly out of a spinning cop car as though he was getting out of a parked golf buggy. Helen Mirren as a stone cold assassin was just bonus points.
Sadly, nearly all the cool action beats are already in the trailer and if all you want is an explodey evening out you can pick up the trailer before something else and not have missed the things which matter to you. But if you'd like a little bit more with your explosions, RED's got that, and it's mostly down to the women.
Helen Mirren effortlessly takes over every scene she's in, which is no mean feat when you have to share the screen with the likes of John Malkovich in playful mood, Morgan Freeman, and Brian Cox playing a gloomy Russian to the hilt. They could have made a whole movie called the Adventures of Victoria and everyone in the cinema would have walked out of this one to see it, because Helen Mirren sold perfectly the idea of someone who'd got so good at shooting people that she could do it without mussing her hair or being slowed up by retirement. There's one wonderful little moment during the climactic caper which sells the whole character; having infiltrated the political conference venue in heels, it's time to get serious, and Malkovich's character shows up to take Victoria's heels and pass her a pair of combat boots which she steps into matter of factly. Girl always has to have the RIGHT footwear. Took five seconds to show it, cost nothing to shoot, spoke volumes. Masterly.
There was a time when no-one would have expected Mary Louise Parker to last five seconds on screen with Helen Mirren before being burned up and blown back out of the frame, but she's taken her kookiness and made something very compelling out of it as she's headed into her forties. A lot of the front half of the movie depends on the chemistry between her and Willis, and she's wonderfully convincing as someone scatty and likeable. RED's a surprisingly warm movie for a comic book adaptation about stone cold killers running round murdering people all over the place, and Mary Louise is the source of most of the warmth; she's a warm presence and everyone else in the case warms up around her.
Those are the standout performances, really. Willis is his usual self, which is fine with me; I like him best as a wise-cracking badass and being an OLD wisecracking badass lets him get back to why John McClane worked so well in Die Hard; Willis is a great action hero because he's not remotely indestructible. He's a bit more indestructible here than he ought to be, but it's honestly come by; as the movie opens up with the character in retirement, we see him exercising and eating carefully and it somehow makes it a little more believable that he could still beat up younger guys in a fight. Malkovich is as good as the writing, which means his character is a bit all over the place, but he's game. And Cox and Morgan have yet to put in a bad performance and they're certainly not going to start here.
It's all great fun. The action's mounted pretty well, although it's heavily front loaded and the back half of the movie feels a bit more sluggish by comparison. The thing which weirded me out was that I think we were supposed to buy into the notion of Karl Urban's character becoming one of the good guys, and when I'm introduced to someone methodically faking a guy's suicide while he's hanging there tied up and begging for his life, I find it hard to warm up to him afterwards even if he turns out to be the spokesman for the popular front for the liberation of fluffy bunnies. It doesn't help that God very kindly blessed poor Karl with a face that has a natural bent for looking mean; he was a wonderful almost wordless bad guy all the way through the middle Bourne movie. Still that one bad mood-call apart, the movie does a nice job of giving you people to root for and putting them in just enough danger to get you invested.
I was sitting there thinking a sequel would be nice, when they ended the getaway with one of the better sequel hooks I've seen; Willis' character had to rope in Cox's Russian by promising him a favour, and Cox wants the favour paid off with a job in Moldova. Having set up the hook, they cut right to the sequel, with Willis and Malkovich trying to get away from the entire Moldovan army in a wheelbarrow. Somehow, I don't think we'll ever see how they got into that pickle, even if we do see some kind of sequel.