The art of arthritic mayhem.
Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Photo Credit: Frank Masi, Summit Entertainment
Directed by Robert Schwentke
Movies specialize in fantasy fulfillment, and what could be more of a fantasy fulfillment than a scene in which a man in his fifties or older beats up a man in his thirties? Such a scene is the centerpiece of Red, the comedy action thriller in which Bruce Willis, 55, plays a retired CIA hit man targeted for elimination by his old agency. Willis breaks into Langley and destroys the office and the face of the operative, two decades younger, assigned to kill him. Later, Helen Mirren, 65, knocks a young Secret Service agent unconscious with a karate chop to the neck. Morgan Freeman, 73, outguns a professional assassin with a full head of hair. (Freeman is an old hand at this: Six years ago, in Million Dollar Baby, his character got into a boxing ring and knocked out a punk 50 years his junior.)
The director of Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood, did Freeman one better in Gran Torino a few years later; his character, a mean coot nearing 80, takes out an entire gang of teenage thugs. Michael Caine, at 76, did exactly the same last year in Harry Browne. And Sylvester Stallone has found himself an improbable second career by putting Rocky back in the ring at 60, sending a near-geriatric Rambo into Burma to rescue a suffering tribe and, last summer, gathering a group of mercenaries to wreak havoc in The Expendables.
Red is a modest hit, as was The Expendables. Million Dollar Baby won a row of Oscars, including one for Freeman. And Gran Torino earned $270 million worldwide. The fantasies being fulfilled here are clearly resonating with the very people these movies are aiming at. Male baby boomers who once thrilled to the Pete Townshend lyric “hope I die before I get old” are finding themselves uniquely susceptible to movies that allow them to indulge in the notion that they are tougher, harder, and stronger than those younger and more hirsute than they. “Talkin’ ’bout my generation” isn’t all that much fun if the talk is of Lipitor and cystoscopes; much more fun if “my generation” can instead beat up people for whom statins and prostate exams are decades off.
Red may actually be the first comic-book movie for the Activia generation. I mean that literally; it was co-produced by DC Comics. Director Robert Schwentke tries to keep things light and cartoonish. Willis lives in a suburban house into which thousands of bullets are pumped one night, and nary a neighbor comes out to check up on the noise. Similar hails of bullets fly about downtown New Orleans and Chicago without attracting attention. People get into a car in the South, fall asleep, and wake up in New Jersey.
The screenplay by Jon and Erich Hoeber is full of har-har pseudo-nostalgia: “I miss the old days,” a Russian agent laments as he shares a vodka with a Cold War adversary. “I haven’t killed anyone in years.” Richard Dreyfuss, showing up as an evil defense contractor who seems simultaneously to have a Southern accent and a Brooklyn accent, declares “I’m the bad guy” to all and sundry. “Can I kill him now?” asks an exasperated John Malkovich, who plays the requisite lovable psycho weapons expert.
It’s all supposed to be in good fun, even that part of the plot that features a deserved assassination attempt on the vice president, who is said to have committed a war crime in Guatemala in 1981. Ordinarily, anti-American nihilistic nonsense of this sort would have had my blood pressure skyrocketing, but after a decent first half-hour, Red goes so slack that I barely had a pulse in its final 90 minutes. The only way I knew I was alive, in fact, was by checking my email and Twitter feed regularly.
How many jokes about how much fun it used to be back in the old days can you take when those old days weren’t your old days? For when the fantasy that a fantasy-fulfillment movie is fulfilling isn’t your fantasy, you’re left with very little unless the movie itself is terrifically clever and surprising. That can happen. The best example I can think of was the first Transformers movie, which became a worldwide sensation not because we all are interested in robots that look like cars but because it was unexpectedly funny.
Red is like listening to someone talk about his great golf shot when you’ve never played golf, or a story about reeling in a big fish when the only boat you’ve ever been on is the Staten Island Ferry. I know Baby Boomers have always had trouble coping with the demands of maturity, but gentlemen, you’re actors; for God’s sake, act your age.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.