Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Sunday, February 06, 2011


-- film -- red

So I finally got around to watching Red, the Bruce Willis movie theoretically made from the comic book by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer. And I will tell you right now that the only surviving part of the comic is the "retired agent yanked out of retirement because people are trying to kill him" part of the story; the rest of it is pretty much shiny and new! Oh, and the mayhem -- not so much the specifics, just the general quantity. Oh, and the CIA building caper, sort of.

NOTE: FROM THIS POINT FORWARD, HERE BE SPOILERS. I don't think you can reasonably spoil a film that's been out for four months, and out on DVD for one, but consider yourself warned. Any road, there's nothing too major revealed.

The fascinating thing about both comic and film is that they both suffer from a problem with their premises. The comic book starts out with the incoming CIA director being told about all the things that Frank has done in his past at the behest of his government, and deciding that he needs to be taken out. The problem with that premise is: it wouldn't happen. If the missions were successful, the new director wouldn't be told about them because he would need to maintain plausible deniability -- and in any event, since they didn't happen on his watch, he wouldn't be held responsible for them. If they were unsuccessful, he wouldn't need to be told about them, because everyone on the planet would know. (Let's face it: really unsuccessful CIA black ops tend to go so pear shaped that everyone in the world finds out about them sooner or later.) And the last thing that the first thing a new CIA director needs to do is to order the murder of a US citizen, on American soil, where -- with the obvious exception of its own buildings -- the CIA is mostly forbidden to operate. (And at the time RED was written, the CIA was totally forbidden to run operations in the US.)

The film takes its own sweet time in telling you what's going on. It's structured as a comedy/mystery/thriller, whereas the comic is a straight ahead weird revenge/thriller -- assuming that "thriller" in both cases means "lots of people get killed and lots of stuff gets shot up". Eventually, it does get around to telling you that this is all about a clean-up operation Frank was involved with early in his career. The problem is, the people being killed know what was done, but not by whom. A reporter was investigating, but the people she was questioning didn't have all the answers, and in any event, her murder is the one that enables Frank to begin to make sense of things. The people directing the killing are the only ones who can make the connections. If they don't run around cleaning up the mess ... there's no mess to clean up. Or less mess, anyway.

And yet, the premise of the film, ultimately, makes slightly more sense than the comic. Slightly. Probably because, given the ranks of the people involved and what they actually did, trying to cover it up by making sure that all players were dead and couldn't blackmail or expose you is understandable, if reprehensible. And having had, in real life, an amoral vice president decide that exposing intelligence assets would save his ass -- and hey, he was right about that -- it's not so hard to believe that the high level players in the film would behave as they do. Mind, a real-life cover-up would probably not involve quite so much massive and highly visible destruction of property or quite so many very noticeable murders. (It is utterly fascinating that most of the destruction and most of the murders are completely public and surprisingly little noticed by anyone around.)

Another interesting point of comparison: The comic is rather more pointed about the extremes to which Frank has gone in his job and doesn't make much effort to make you like him; it's also much more pointed about what the job cost him and what retirement meant to him. The comic humanizes Frank without making him likeable; the movie lets you like him, but has to take a much different path to making him human, especially given that they're forcing him to kill rather startling numbers of people to protect himself. Thus, the romance, which is very oddly played.

Other than that, I really don't have much to say about the film. It's oddly delightful, in a "let's turn off the brains and watch the old pros operate" sort of way. The one major knock against it that I have is that most of the team doesn't show up for far too long -- Helen Mirren especially. This movie needed an elegant hitwoman much earlier. (Victoria's ability to produce major automatic weaponry from absolutely nowhere is just awesome.) The romance, as mentioned, felt a bit odd and out of place. And it has absolutely no sense of pace -- a movie like this needs to run fast and not stop to give you time to breathe, and it slows down quite a few times, here and there. That said, it does -- quite successfully -- make you like some people who, if you think about it at all, we should absolutely hate. After all, as Victoria says, "[They] kill people, darling." For their governments, yes, but for a living. Their actual job is killing people for variously political reasons. And they're not nice about it.

(...OK, the entirety of the bit in the CIA building in the film is utterly ridiculous, even for a popcorn movie. The idea that you could break in the way they do, with the people watching the way they do, is just bizarre. Oh, and in one of the most highly defended buildings in the country, nobody notices the mayhem. Though, that said, there's also an interesting CIA building showdown in the comic. Ends differently, though.)

I will admit to being incredibly curious as to what happens with Karl Urban's character after the end. How in the name of sanity would he explain all that, especially given the number and identities of the corpses? But hey, apparently Red did so well financially that Summit is about to greenlight a sequel, so maybe I'll even find out. (I really can't imagine what the story would actually be about -- the difficulties in running domestic intelligence black ops after the events of Red, which would have produced the security state to beat all security states, maybe?)

Questions? Comments? Stylishly presented automatic weaponry?

Posted by iain at 03:05 AM in category film