Under the Radar: Movies You May Have Missed—RED / RED 2

Hollywood tells us that the world of espionage is glamorous, dangerous, sexy, and unpredictable. It's full of femme fatales, debonair secret agents, car chases, and equal parts gunfire and explosions.

Bond, Bourne, Hunt: these are our heroes. They're handsome, muscular, and always ready with a quip. They go through women like tissue papers—women who are always smokin' hot and rarely to be trusted.

But what happens in twenty, thirty, forty years? What happens when the world's best spies are grey-haired—or have no hair at all—and their respective governments decide their work is a “young man's game”?

It's a question you rarely see posed in these adrenaline-spiked flicks. Every time a Bond gets too old, they simply swap him out for a newer, younger model. It's only a matter of time before they either A) have to stop making the Mission Impossible films or B) have Ethan pass the torch to a new character, given Tom Cruise is already in his fifties.

And it's a question that, when answered, leads to a mighty interesting story—which is where RED and RED 2 come in. What would happen to a secret agent so good at his job he actually lived to see retirement? Is it even possible for someone so steeped in spycraft to just walk away and have a normal life?

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is your average retiree: he has a nice house, a routine, and is attempting to grow an avocado. The brightest moments in his humdrum life involve calling the pension office where Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) works and engaging in some light telephone flirtation.

But Frank's pension checks come courtesy of the CIA. In his youth, he was such a successful black ops agent that his file now reads R.E.D. (Retired: Extremely Dangerous). And it seems that his past—as it always does in these stories—is coming back to haunt him.

After handily taking out a hit squad that makes a surprise visit at his house, Frank books it to Kansas City to pick up Sarah, who he knows must be on the radar thanks to his phone calls.

Along the way, the two meet up with old colleagues Marvin (John Malkovich), Joe (Morgan Freeman), and Victoria (Helen Mirren) as they try to uncover why the government suddenly wants them dead after all of these years.

Meanwhile, current CIA agent William Cooper (Karl Urban) is ordered to hunt Frank and Co. down and the mysterious former KGB operative Ivan (Brian Cox) lends his support—largely driven by his long-held love for Victoria.

Boy, is it delightful seeing older actors in action roles. Willis, of course, has long been a manly hero in such films, but where else will you get a chance to see the melodious-voiced Morgan Freeman take out an assassin or Helen Mirren behind an anti-tank Gatling gun?

In fact, Mirren gets to be the femme fatale of the first film—a lady of a certain age who enjoys arranging flowers and killing men in her ample spare time. It's wholly believable given how gorgeous and fit she is.

Between her history with Ivan and Frank and Sarah's burgeoning romance, there's plenty of love mixed in with the mayhem and murder. RED may not be as sex-filled as a Bond outing, but it feels a helluva lot more sincere.

RED 2 picks up not long after the first, with Frank and Sarah living in domestic bliss—or at least Frank's determined to be blissful with their domestic arrangements, even though Sarah is itching for the adventure and danger of his old life.

The old adage “be careful what you wish for” is quick to deliver. Marvin reappears, convinced someone's out to kill him—a frequent refrain for him, given how he was subjected to daily doses of LSD by the government and is slightly unhinged; The role feels tailor-made for the wonderfully crazy and wild-eyed Malkovich. Within the day he, Frank, and Sarah have been branded international terrorists and are on the run looking for information about a Cold War plot codenamed Nightshade.

Seems a mad genius, Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), created an untraceable weapon with the destructive power of a nuclear bomb and hid it somewhere in Moscow. Luckily the team has the questionable aid of Russian femme fatale Katja (Catherine Zeta Jones), as they're being pursued by spook Jack (Neal McDonough) and a professional hitman with a personal grudge against Frank, Han Cho Bai (the incredibly sexy Byung Hun Lee).

Even with the higher stakes, a lot of the sequel's charm is in Frank and Sarah's relationship: he's so determined to keep her safe and she's equally determined to become a spy badass like her boyfriend.

Willis may be a rugged, gruff guy in a lot of his films, and Frank is no different, but he's also great at giving his characters a “gooey center,” as Victoria puts it. Korben Dallas in The Fifth Element, John McClane in the Die Hard series, and now Frank Moses: they're all sweet, loving guys beneath the butt-kicking veneer. A girl's dream action hero, really.

Mary-Louise Parker does a marvelous job as Sarah, giving her a bright-eyed optimism and excitement whenever bullets begin to fly—clearly, danger is a big turn-on for her. After reading too many bad spy romances, she's finally getting the opportunity to live out her wildest fantasies.

While most women would tear up over jewelry, all she really wants is a gun. Good thing Marvin's there to play the part of wacky pseudo brother-in-law, offering romantic advice to both sides and enabling Sarah at every turn.

FRANK: You gave her a gun?!
MARVIN: It is America, Frank.
FRANK: You don't give fire to a kitten!

What makes these films so charming is how they give their largely grey-haired cast just as much to do as any other action film: car chases, shoot-outs, undercover disguises, forbidden romance, hand-to-hand combat. Just because they're a little bit longer in the tooth doesn't mean they can't kick ass, take names, and save the day.

It's disappointingly rare to see such fun roles given to older actors, particularly older women—Helen Mirren has said in numerous interviews that she'd love to do more action, and I think it's high time we had a female version of The Expendables hit theaters.

(At the very least, she and Liam Neeson should team up to do a film about married spies, a la Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Now that would be box office gold.)

But until then, at least we have RED and RED 2: funny, well-plotted, action-packed outings, with stellar casts, that are worth watching again and again. Because life just isn't complete until you've seen John Malkovich in a Carmen Miranda get-up.

If you like: Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Grosse Pointe Blank.

Why you should watch it: A fun cast proves that an old spy is a very good spy: there's a reason they reached retirement age, after all, and their enemies would be wise to remember that.

Favorite moment(s): Marvin and his pig during the attack at the airport (RED); Han and Victoria teaming up to take out a slew of baddies in a high-octane car chase (RED 2).

Comments

  1. Deanna Stillings

    We loved R.E.D. and must see 2!!!

  2. Todd Henson

    I agree, I loved the first and I’m looking forward to seeing the second.

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