Many movies (you could easily say too many) are developed from graphic novels, but very few of those manage to retain the feel and appeal of comic books once they reach the big screen.
In the past year, there have been only two that accomplished this feat, "Kick-Ass" and "Red," the latter of which hits DVD shelves this week. Add to that the fact that the stars of "Red" are on average way more than old enough to be members of AARP, and you've got a truly odd mix that somehow still worked very well.
In fact, "Red" gets better and better as its stars get older. As the movie opens we find Bruce Willis as a recently retired CIA agent who, out of sheer boredom, throws out his pension checks just so he can call the pension office in Kansas City and flirt with the operator, who, in the movie's first bit of sheer lunacy, just happens to Mary Louise Parker. After he finds himself the target of assassins, he realizes his former employers would have tapped his phone, and so he goes to Kansas City to rescue (well, sort of kidnap) Parker's character.
Sounds like just about exactly the kind of forgettable "comedy" that gets released in theaters this time of year, right? Well, it felt that way at this point and probably would have been, but once Willis' Frank Grimes contacts his mentor, played by Morgan Freeman, it really gets to be nothing but fun from there on out, and more and more as it goes along. Throw in John Malkovich, the always great and underrated Brian Cox and, best of all, Dame Helen Mirren, and you've got sort of "The Expendables" on Geritol, and this group has more goofy energy in the first few minutes they're on screen than Sylvester Stallone's gang did in that entire movie.
To describe the plot of "Red" on paper really doesn't do it justice, since like with the best comic book movies, it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Let's just say that Willis and his fellow former agents have all been targeted for assassination for some reason by the government that used to employ them, so they of course join forces to take their revenge.
This material would indeed be entirely familiar and more than a bit tired if it weren't for its stars, who rather than make this simply a novelty act due to their ages, instead turn it into a genuine romp, albeit one often filled with the very definition of "cartoon violence." Malkovich is as crazy as he's ever been, which is saying a lot, and funnier than he's been in years, but the real stars here are Mirren and Cox.
There's just something uniquely appealing about seeing Dame Helen Mirren wielding a sniper rifle in a ball gown, but she also brings enough range to the role to make this at times a sly commentary on aging and retirement. After all, when you've been a hit man (or woman) all your professional life, what are you supposed to do in retirement? Cox is her perfect match as the Russian operative who just happened to be a former and still smoldering flame.
What makes a great comic book movie? It's hard to describe, but it's mostly in the movie's rhythm and feel, and like "Kick-Ass" and "Red," for me at least, it has to deal with fairly dark subjects with a good bit of slyly wicked humor. If that's your kind of thing, too, you can do a whole lot worse than renting "Red" this weekend.
One further note: Stieg Larsson's great Lisbeth Salander trilogy also comes to a close on DVD this week with the release of "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," which wasn't my DVD pick of the week only because I haven't seen it. This is, rather amazingly, available streaming already on Netflix, so it's sitting at the top of my queue to be watched this weekend. Peace out.