Times film reviews, October 22, 2010

Red 3 stars

Helen Mirren in "Red"

Helen Mirren in "Red"

Red – C.I.A. code for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous” – is a bit like The Expendables in uniting an all-star cast of oldsters for one last fling. Unlike The Expendables, however, the acting is more explosive than the action.

Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, leader of a gang of stir-crazy Black Ops retirees that includes a roguish Morgan Freeman, the paranoid acid-casualty John Malkovich and, less predictably, a gun-happy Dame Helen Mirren. Brian Cox joins them from the Soviet side as Mirren’s ex, convinced she still loves him despite her terminating their relationship with three bullets in his chest, and still there’s room for Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfuss in supporting roles. It’s a dream cast, and they’re given plenty of space for their one-liners to zing.

But the film’s strength is also its weakness. This is the kind of action comedy where the comedy keeps stopping for the action, a disjunction laboured by the banal soundtrack: sardonic plinky-plonky keyboards for the witty dialogue, driving guitars for the machine-guns, rocket-launchers and interminable running from place to place. The more fun we have with Willis and Co, the more yawnsome exploding body parts become.

The script is loosely based on a much grimmer and tighter graphic novel by the iconoclastic British writer Warren Ellis. It’s still graphic, but far from novel. The plot could have been bought by the kilo in Poundland: a dozen people involved in a C.I.A. incident in Guatemala are, 30 years after the event, being killed off one by one. It’s as holey as a Polo mint, and less fresh-tasting.

In fact, it would be tempting to dismiss the film as an enjoyable misfire were it not for a breakout performance by Mary-Louise Parker as Moses’s love-interest, Sarah. Doe-eyed but sassy, she’s the only one who comes off as a real flesh and blood person instead of having stepped straight out of a comic book. It’s such a relief to find a warm, funny, human role for a woman in an action film that you can forgive Red almost anything.

Sarah reads trashy romance novels, dreams of exotic travel, and hates her job at a pensions call-centre where she phone-flirts with Frank Moses. Yet she gets more than she bargained for when Moses shows up unannounced in her house, saying hitmen are gunning for them both. She screams the place down, forcing Moses to kidnap her and take them both on the run.

“I was hoping you’d be a bit more understanding of the situation,” says Moses afterwards.

“I was hoping not to get kidnapped. Or drugged. I was hoping you’d have hair,” she replies. “I’ve had better first dates. Then again,” she smiles, “I’ve had worse.”

That could just as well sum up a film which, fun though it is, can’t decide if it’s stand-up or shoot-’em-up. Red? In a word, rum.

Dominic Wells



Legend of the_Guardians: The Owls of GaHoole

Film Roundup

3 stars Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga’Hoole

Alpha and Omega

Easy A

3 stars Ramona and Beezus

Helen Mirren makes her second film outing this week, and at least her eighth royal screen role to date, as the seductively evil owl queen in Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga’Hoole.

This is the heavy-hitter of the half-term releases: sumptuously and expensively animated down to the last ruffled feather. The plot’s nothing new – it’s Lord of the Rings with beaks, and a “use the Force” ending bolted on from Star Wars – but it does envelop you completely in its world, as any successful fantasy flick must.

Zack Snyder directs, he who made the ultra-violent comic-book films 300 and Watchmen. He cuts out the blood for a PG rating, but his signature slo-mo makes the battle scenes visceral enough for older children to enjoy.

That’s more than can be said for the charmless Alpha and Omega, also in 3D and sadly Dennis Hopper’s swansong, about two wolves from opposite sides of the pack who fall for each other in defiance of tradition. Its animation, after Legends of the Guardian, is like watching someone rub two sticks together when you’ve just witnessed a fireworks display.

Easy A is that rare thing: a high-school chick-flick with real wit and heart. Not as fizzingly original as Juno, nor as breezily acerbic as Mean Girls, it’s still one of the best in years. When a white lie about losing her virginity spirals (or rather virals) out of control, Olive (Emma Stone) finds herself branded the school slut – in an uncanny echo of The Scarlet Letter, which she is studying in English.

It’s a career-making performance: expect Stone to become huge. But it’s also a generous ensemble piece, where even the smallest parts get a great line or two. “This is a public school,” intones Malcolm McDowell as the principal. “If I can keep the girls off the pole and the boys off the pipe, I get a bonus.”

Another well-judged chick-flick, for a much younger generation, is Ramona and Beezus. The book series it’s based on is 50 years old, and though it’s given a contemporary topping, the core is pure Mom’s apple pie suburban Americana.

Ramona is “nine and three quarters”. She lives in the shadow of her perfect older sister Beezus, and her overactive imagination frequently leads to disaster. When her father (played by John Corbett, the hunky one off Sex and the City, this time with Dad Hair) loses his job, Ramona resolves to make money to keep the house from foreclosure…

Directed, written, edited and produced by an all-female team, it’s deceptively simple, entirely wholesome fun. If it doesn’t leave you with a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye, go see a doctor.

Dominic Wells