‘RED’: The Comic vs. the Bruce Willis/Morgan Freeman Film [Review]
Now a feature film starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and John Malkovich, “Red” was originally a comic book miniseries by writer Warren Ellis (“Transmetropolitan”, “Planetary”) and artist Cully Hamner (“Detective Comics,” “Blue Beetle”) about a retired black ops killer named Paul Moses, an over the hill former operative who had been done with the wetwork game for years, wishing only to be left alone to have a quiet life and to try and forget the awful things he had done for his country.
But when a newly appointed CIA director, a politician with no experience in intelligence work, discovers who Moses is and all the things he’s done, he decides it’s better to kill the retired agent rather than allow anyone to live with the knowledge that the U.S. would authorize dirty work. Unfortunately for him, “old” does not equate “out of shape” or “rusty” and Paul is easily able to defeat those sent to kill him. And now Moses is on a quest to take out those who wouldn’t let him live in peace.A very cool story concept. So it’s no wonder it made it into a film, which was released today, starring Bruce Willis as Frank Moses (a change from the comic). But whereas the mini-series focused solely on him, the film has Moses fighting alongside several of his former colleagues, played by Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Brian Cox. Joining them is Mary Louise Parker as a government pencil pusher Frank has developed a crush on and who unwittingly finds herself involved in his mission.
From the get go, the movie is different from the comic. While some scenes are very close to the original story, here Frank is not targeted for assassination because he’s living proof that the U.S. does bad things but because he knows too much about a particular operation that needs to be covered up. Also, whereas the comic book was called “Red” to signify Paul/Frank becoming an active killer again (as opposed to “green status” which marked him as non-active and retired), this movie states that “R.E.D.” is an acronym for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous.” Little touches like that, along with the fact that Frank has a crew, immediately tell you that this will be its own story.
So is this new story good? With comic book-based movies, I tend to look at it in two ways. First: how does it stand on its own? Then: how does it compare to the comic?
[Beware - Mild Spoilers Below]
THE FILM ON ITS OWN
The movie “Red” is a fun action film with lots of banter and wit that underlines the fact that you’re not supposed to take the over the top action too seriously. When you have Brian Cox playing a former KGB agent who gets weepy when he realizes how long it’s been since he’s killed anyone, it’s an indication that you shouldn’t be asking yourself if Frank Moses (or any human being) would be physically capable of doing the things that he does without being hospitalized in the process. In the sense, it fits into the same basic genre of film as the “Lethal Weapon” sequels, the “Bad Boys” movies, or the fourth installment of “Die Hard.”
The movie is enjoyable. The cast is great and everyone bounces off each other very nicely. Mary Louise Parker gives us an entertaining journey as we watch her character Sarah go from unwilling hostage to someone who actually admires the combat skills of Moses and his comrades and who sympathizes with their plight. Yes, they are all killers and she’s very open about voicing her opinion that they’re all crazy, but she also recognizes that they retired for a reason and should have been left alone. By having her around, we remember that in this story Frank and his friends are in the right for taking on the CIA, especially when they discover that they are being eliminated not because they are dangerous but as part of a much larger conspiracy.
It may seem strange at first to take a mini-series focusing on one man and turn it into an ensemble cast, but that makes sense when you realize that the original comic book would have probably only taken up about 40 minutes of screen time if adapted word for word, panel for panel. That doesn’t make for a whole movie, so your options are to either add a lot of background, add a subplot or add characters.
Karl Urban is great as Cooper, a CIA agent attempting to hunt down Moses, unaware of just why his bosses want the man dead but initially not caring because this is his job. He comes off as a tough, deadly, determined foe for Moses but later on shows different sides to his character. His performance in this film encourages my belief that he will be interesting as Judge Dredd in the future.
Bruce Willis is playing a style of character he’s done before and I have no problem with that because he does it so well. His friendship with Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich (who steals several scenes with his bizarre one-liners) seem honest and fun.
Where this movie falls short of its own merit is the fact that we don’t truly have a villain. Yes, we have Richard Dreyfuss playing an unsavory character and yes, we’re told about a certain political official who has evil intentions as well. But for most of the movie, it’s not really clear who’s calling the shots against Moses and his crew or why. Nor do we see the truly evil people for much of the film. Mainly we see Cooper hunting down Moses and while that makes him an antagonist, it doesn’t make him a bad guy. He’s just doing his job and it’s understandable considering that he doesn’t have all the facts. With an action film like this, I think having a clear bad guy for us to root against would have made it stronger. Otherwise, it’s mainly our heroes attacking faceless, nameless CIA goons.
Will this movie melt your face off with its groundbreaking realism and plot twists? No. But it’s fun and worth seeing with a group of friends who want a distraction from life.
HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO THE COMIC?
The film and the comic are two very different animals. Whereas the movie is a fun distraction with characters to laugh with and root for, the comic is a much darker tale. Moses is someone you feel sympathy for because he wanted to be left alone, yes, but you aren’t allowed to forget that he is, by his own admission, a “monster.” He became a government killer when he was 19 and it took him decades before he decided he wanted out. He is not someone you think might fall in love with a girl who he is then able to charm. Even if he did develop feelings for someone (and there is some evidence to support that in the comic), the woman in question would not think to date him because it is clear in his eyes what kind of man he is. Frank is aware of this himself and is haunted by it. Even the sound of thunder brings back unpleasant memories of war and missions that bring a tear to his eye.
In the film, it’s understandable that Frank Moses has to fight the CIA because they’re tracking down not only him but his friends. In the comic, Paul Moses is alone and it’s implied that the reason he’s doing this is not out of fear that he will have nowhere to hide from the CIA but out of anger that they broke their promise to leave him in peace. This is about personal retribution and that’s made very clear though Hamner’s artwork. The scenes are dark, the pacing and actions are fast and vicious. While the film’s cast tells us we don’t have to be scared of the former black ops killers, Hamner does everything to give a stark atmosphere and show us Moses as a terrible force of nature. He may be scared of his own brutality at times, but he does nothing to hold back and shifts between rage and acting without emotion. Just look at his eyes throughout the comic book and you have a very different person than the character portrayed by Willis.
The comic book mini-series is also very much a political commentary. It is emphasized that the CIA director is only targeting Moses because he is politically inconvenient. He not only wants the American people to trust that their government is honest, noble and principled in all respects, he wants to erase all evidence that it was ever any other way. And this selfish short-sightedness is what brings about so much death and destruction later.
Ellis also includes comments from Moses and others that the CIA director is just a symptom of a larger problem in the U.S. where elections and political campaigns are given more consideration than pragmatic solutions. It is pointed out that the CIA director was appointed because it is no longer to put an intelligent or military officer in charge of a branch of government that deals with military intelligence and that this absurd logic is what leads to events such as depicted in the comic. Ellis and Hamner paint a grim picture that, although witty in a few small places, is not meant to make you laugh nor is there any hope for a happy ending.
So it’s up to you. If you wanted exactly what you got in the comic, you’re just looking for an excuse to get upset. If you want a movie that’s fun and lively, then grab a ticket and a date and get moving!