Many movies dealing with the CIA seem to draw from two seminal films for their inspiration.

One is the 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate, starring Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey, (later remade in 2004, with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep).

The other is Three Days of the Condor, filmed in 1975 with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway.

The first deals with the paranoid theme of brainwashed and compromised sleeper agents in line for the highest political office in the USA. The other deals with the theme of a secret CIA-within-the CIA, bent on all kinds of subversive machinations.

Red manages to incorporate both themes and carries it off rather well. In CIA parlance, the acronym R.E.D. supposedly stands for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”.

It refers in the film to a group of CIA operatives who are pensioned off from their agency trade of performing “wet jobs”. In other words, they are professional, highly trained and efficient political assassins.

Bruce Willis leads a first-rate cast as Frank Moses, an agency analyst-cum-killer with a superb command of martial arts skills, charisma and resourcefulness.

As the film opens, we see him chatting up call centre operator Sarah Ross, played by May-Louise Parker, about his government pension cheques, which repeatedly fail to arrive. Listless and bored with her job, she welcomes his overtures, and arranges to meet him when he drops by on a trip to her native Kansas City.

But before Moses’ visit, all hell breaks loose on his own home scene.

On a bathroom break in the middle of the night, he’s confronted by a hit squad of masked and heavily-armed black-clad ninja types, whom he effectively dispatches. Escaping and knowing full well that they are agency operatives, he’s left with the puzzle of why the CIA is out to kill him.

His next realization is that the girl is highly likely to be in danger also, due to her association with him. With both of them on the run, Moses recruits a band of his former colleagues to assist him in combatting what appears to be a rogue element within the agency.

Director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveller’s Wife) has assembled a superb ensemble cast in support of Willis. Morgan Freeman plays ex-agent Joe Matheson, who gladly leaves his domicile at the Silver Springs Nursing Home to aid Moses.

John Malkovitch plays Marvin Boggs, a whacked-out paranoid type who was unknowingly fed LSD daily for 11 years through an agency mind-control experiment.

Nevertheless, he possesses an unerring instinct for potential threats, as evinced when he confronts a woman in an airport, whom he suspects as an agent with the line, “You smell of Washington to me!”

Red is billed as an action-adventure comedy, and although some of its caricatures are clearly over the top, I still find the premise of glorifying assassins somewhat repugnant, even if it is played for laughs.

Additionally, the excessive use of firepower, where a well-placed sniper’s bullet would often do the trick, strains credulity as well as the boredom threshold.

Similarly, the ultimate answer to why the CIA is eliminating people wholesale, involving as it does arms dealers and Manchurian Candidate types stretches a bit thin. But overall, Red is an entertaining enough representative of its genre, well executed with a highly skilled cast.

Red plays at 9:00 pm only at the Yukon Theatre, and is rated PG for violence and coarse language.


Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.