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"Red" is like boarding a sinfully designed roller coaster that keeps breaking down during the frantic ride. It's a blazing actioner with a marvelous cast, but it retains a woeful sense of kinetic movement, jutting back and forth between static dialogue scenes and hyper-stylized confrontations. It's enough to make a viewer seasick, or perhaps a little bored between the sprays of bullets. But that's where the old-fashioned shine of star power comes in the save the day, keeping the picture partially awake as director Robert Schwentke plots out his meticulous plan of attack.
A retired black-ops C.I.A. agent, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) has assumed a mundane existence in Ohio, maintaining a phone relationship with Sarah (a superbly unappealing Mary-Louise Parker), a daydreaming government employee. When a hit squad attempts to take him out, Frank realizes something sneaky is afoot, soon slipping back into neck-snapping action, picking up Sarah along the way to protect her. After discovering a special list that's targeted him for death, Frank hits up old pals Joe (Morgan Freeman), Victoria (Helen Mirren), and paranoid Marvin (John Malkovich, firmly in his element) for assistance in cracking the mystery. On their trail is Cooper (Karl Urban), a meticulous C.I.A. agent who brazenly engages Frank before learning of his critical R.E.D. status, or "Retired, Extremely Dangerous."
Based on a comic book series created by Warren Ellis, "Red" contains an unusually complicated story concerning betrayals, conspiracies, and assassinations, which appears to confuse Schwentke. The helmer of "Flightplan" and "The Time Traveler's Wife" has arrived to raise holy hell, but there's this clunky, poorly folded story to tend to before the bloodshed can commence. "Red" is a film torn between two directions: action and intrigue, but the feature wants to have it all. Unfortunately, the screenplay isn't limber enough to juggle as furiously as Schwentke would like, leaving a picture with incredible concentration on surface details, but a turgid bore in the suspense realm.
With a full arsenal of CG-enhanced tricks to tinker with, the director dives headfirst into "Red," manufacturing an action film that fetishizes firearm discharges and near misses, pushing the cast through a few frantic encounters that play into the bold comic book nature of the picture. Schwentke's eye is fantastic and his sense of humor remains intact while managing ungodly destruction, leaving the exaggerated cinematic exploits of the film a joy to behold. When it wants to be, "Red" is immense fun, slamming around with Frank and the gang as they attempt to remain one-step ahead of the bad guys, exercising their old survival instincts with palpable glee.
Having a cast with this type of wattage certainly gets Schwentke out of a few jams. Though Morgan Freeman is regulated to more of a cameo role, the rest of the gang digs into the stylized mood comfortably, with Helen Mirren nearly stealing the film. As the dainty domestic queen with a penchant for machine guns, Mirren taps into the wicked tone of the picture, gracefully communicating the contrast between the mundane routine of retired life and the ecstasy of urban warfare, helped in part by a flirtation with an old Russian suitor (Brian Cox). Also enjoyable is Karl Urban as Cooper, gamely taking all the hits as the character attempts to track Frank and the gang down. Urban matches Willis well in the blue steel department, leading to a bruising mid-movie showdown where the two opponents beat the stuffing out of each other inside the C.I.A. headquarters.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation deals with some mighty specific cinematography that devours the outdoor elements and tight close-ups. Detail is stellar throughout, with splendid facial response that retains the cheeky attitude of the cast, while also carefully surveying thriller encounters. Weaponry is also extremely crisp and textured, looking striking as war is declared. Environmental activity is superb, with lush colors bringing out the changes in temperature, while interiors retain their steely stature. Bold hues also pop off set design particulars and costumes, creating a vibrant viewing experience that reinforces the graphic novel origins of the material. Shadow detail is pure and supportive. Skintones are a lovely shade of pink, looking healthy.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix skillfully details the world of "Red," from one-liners to explosive mayhem. Directionals are striking here, placing the listener in the middle of a few startling bullet exchanges. The same can be said of the fisticuffs, with men tossed around the frame, boosted by a lively track that keeps aural matters crisp and purposeful. Dialogue exchanges are direct and frontal, blended well with scoring cues and the occasional rock song. The disc provides a wonderful jolt when charged up, with an active low-end supplying the perfect amount of rumble to the rampage. It's an immersive mix. A Spanish track is also available.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with Retired C.I.A. Field Officer Robert Baer is a curiosity, but not always an interesting listen. Baer, who acted as a consultant on the film, sticks primarily to his history at the C.I.A., the routine of life on the job, and the company details of the script. It's an interesting idea for a commentary, but it runs out of gas quickly, with plenty of dead spot to hurdle as Baer walks through a film he didn't make.
"Deleted and Extended Scenes" (8:46) offer tiny comedic and action beats to fill out the shenanigans, but the primary addition here deals with Cooper and his complicated life at home and work. It's good to see Urban with something meatier to play. An extended ending is also included.
"Access: Red" is a clickable trivia track that runs the length of the film, offering viewers featurettes, tidbits, and C.I.A. history to enjoy as they watch the movie. Personally, I prefer the visual evidence to be served up separate from the film (or at least offered as such), leaving this experience ambitious, but often annoying to navigate.
The film's terrific Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
While bodies are hurled through the air with skill and the blow-em-ups are cared for quite nicely, "Red" must eventually tend to the iffy plot. Criminally, Schwentke keeps returning to the conspiracy between action beats, creating potholes in the pace that grow more abyssal as the film wears on. "Red" is an amusing picture, but it's an odd case where actual storytelling gets in the way of the movie's excellence.