For the most part, 'Red' is an utter joy of an action movie. It's not game-changing, nor particularly new, but it gives some older and beloved folks a chance to have fun on-screen, and in turn, offer laughs, shoot-outs and hijinks for the viewer. The film has life and spice, and wonderfully -- for the most part -- loves its female characters. Mary-Louise Parker shows that she should be in a hell of a lot more action movies with her take on Sarah, an innocent government worker who gets entangled in the fray, and Helen Mirren's Victoria is pitch-perfect as an old pro who can wield a gun just as easily as a teapot.
The basic theme isn't so much the old spy-vs-spy standard, but rather a world where everyone gets a taste of the action -- old and young, man and woman. And, for the most part, it succeeds -- that is, until the comedy belly flops into the action water with lazy abandon.
Adapted from a D.C. Comics' graphic novel, 'Red' is an action comedy focusing on Frank (Bruce Willis), a retired CIA agent labeled "RED" -- "retired and extremely dangerous." As the younger folks descend with guns blazing to bring him down, Frank escapes and gets the help of his old colleagues, Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Mirren), plus a Russian named Ivan (Brian Cox), and the government paper pusher he's in love with (Parker). Piece by piece, the group revels in the action they desperately miss, while trying to uncover the conspiracy that put Frank into this situation.
As Sarah, Parker starts off as the damsel in distress -- the woman who isn't a part of this spy business, who just wants to return to her old life. However, there's a strength and spunky vibe to her, that becomes ever more apparent as she adapts well to the world of danger. Sarah lacks the skill to truly battle with the rest of them, but she has the attitude and drive to hold her own -- even figuring out how to escape when she's tied down. Sarah is how we'd all wish we'd be as normal folks pulled into heavy danger. She has the normal reactions of shock and fear, but finds a latent talent for, and attraction to, the danger.
Helen Mirren's Victoria, on the other hand, is the best kind of badass, a woman who mixes the classically feminine thrills with a cool gun-toting persona that wipes all notions of age from the picture. She talks about shooting lovers just as easily as she'd hand over a scone for tea. Yes, there is a sexual element to her persona -- there usually is in Mirren's work -- but there's also this taste of reality. She's not a 'Kill Bill' type assassin who seems larger than life. She's just simply a tough assassin in an older woman's body.
Quickly, both actresses became two of my favorite big-screen toughies, for their finesse and ability to adapt to the situation. That is, until one moment.
Now Entering Spoiler Land (Look for bold to see when it ends after a few paragraphs.)
As the action increases, Victoria is in the thick of the fray. She casually battles in a long white dress, and it all seems too easy. But then she gets hit, and at first, the scene plays out beautifully. She stays behind to deal with the threat, the bright red staining her crisp white frock. She tries to escape -- in a way so proper that it's as if she melded 'The Queen' with 'Rambo' as inspiration -- but is caught by a locked door. She chooses to wait for her attackers, in a lovely moment where she stretches her arms in a pose that's both Christ-like and open arms waiting for an embrace.
But luckily Ivan, the lover she once had to shoot, comes by with a key. He unlocks the door and essentially saves her. That bit is fine for their storyline, but then he scoops her up into his arms and carries her away. I understand that this is written to balance their violent past, but it also throws a huge thorn into her Victoria's excellent persona. It isn't necessary for him to carry her. He could have easily offered an arm or helpful embrace; she was hit, but wasn't on death's door. Victoria was back to her normal self soon after.
To make matters worse, this is the same movie where Macho Man Bruce Willis gets shot and then carries a hefty, grown man -- it's quite the gender disparity in a film striving to make all of its players tough.
End of spoiler land...
It just goes to show how dedicated Hollywood is to this dichotomy of the tough male hero and the love-interest heroine. I don't particularly mind that either woman in 'Red' has a love story -- these subplots are great meat for the film -- but I do mind when the habit for damsels in distress taints the world of kickass women -- especially when 'Red' puts such efforts into making Sarah a whole lot more than the flustered and flighty damsel.
And no, that particular moment of 'Red' that I cite above doesn't kill the film, but as I noted -- it's a useless thorn. It doesn't further the plot in any way, and the same thematic moments can be achieved without that one act. Yes, as someone who writes about women in cinema, I'm more sensitive to these characterizations, but I find I can at least ignore them -- to some extent -- if there's a palpable why. I might not agree with what was done, but can stomach annoying moments when the why makes sense. But if you take an absolutely wonderful character and include something very out of character -- something that's also very much a stereotypical norm -- you're not paying any service to your story and players.
We'd never dream that John McClane, or any of Bruce Willis' toughies, would become a damsel in distress. The man can battle a helicopter and keep on going like the Energizer bunny. It might be slightly more believable because of his muscles, but it's still impossible for real human men, whether they like it or not. So why don't we apply that same acceptance to the women?
Cinema is a world where we defy the constraints of our human existence, and there's no reason for the women on the big-screen to be shackled by a tiresome set of real-world rules. Especially when they're as cool as the ladies in 'Red.'