RED and the finer points of growing up rather than old

TLC and I went to the pictures yesterday, and thoroughly enjoyed RED, a movie about Special Ops killers coming out of retirement after their lives are threatened by a spectre from their past. This makes it sounds all grim-faced and dark, and that’s exactly how the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner reads. It is a dark little tale with very little in the way of humour or even light patches, and a very unhappy ending.

The film is nothing like that. It takes Warren’s themes and setpieces and ties them into a story that bears only passing resemblance to the book. This is a very good thing. It’s one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in a while, with a script that understands the mechanics of the action movie, but winks and blows them a kiss as it breezes by. It’s a lot of fun, but it also has a heart and backbone, and takes time to make the point that being retired doesn’t make you useless. Far from it. Frank Moses, the RED of the title, played as Bruce Willis by Bruce Willis, is always one step ahead, always capable of thinking on his feet. He’s not an impotent old man or an easy target. And he’s even mature enough to shrug off the jibes about his hair.

There’s a wonderful moment towards the end of the film when he explains to his opponent Cooper (played with aplomb and empathy by Karl Urban, who I’m now very excited to see as Judge Dredd) about what it has taken to bring him here, and the awful lessons he’s had to learn. He is the lonely, unstoppable ronin because he has lost everything he’s ever cared about. The last hurrah that RED documents so entertainingly is his last chance at redemption, rather than revenge. It’s a chilling moment that brings home a few home truths about the process of growing up and growing old, and the things we have to lose along the way.

For me, RED’s major strength is in the casting of its female characters. These are front and centre, the engine of the story rather than the brakes. Rebecca Pidgeon is sharply efficient as the cold Control of Urban’s killer. Helen Mirren is regal and deadly, and you can just tell she was having a blast with the heavy artillery. [SPOILER ALERT] Even the commuter that John Malkovich’s character threatens with a gun comes back at him with a rocket launcher. [/SPOILER ALERT]

But it’s Mary-Louise Parker that makes the show for me. Goofy, sweet and tough all at once, always ready for a challenge and an adventure. There are no simpering dolly-birds here. You can see from the first minute of the film why Frank is so smitten with her. I am too.

Interestingly, there were a bunch of screensurfers in the back row. You know the sort, kids that’ll get in for one film then stick around all day moving from screen to screen. They were clearly intent on just chatting and pissing around, until the cinema as a whole made their feelings perfectly plain. A cinema, incidentally, full of people in their thirties and forties – the target audience for RED. An aural eye-roll (how do kids DO that?) and a muttered “Cuh, old people” was the closest we got to rebellion, and they sloped away minutes before the explosive end to the film. Their loss, in all kinds of ways. There was a lesson to be learned, if they could have been bothered to listen.

Warren gives us his insight into the story and themes of RED in a piece for the Guardian HERE. The figure of the Unretired Hero isn’t going away anytime soon.