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At The Movies: RED

2010 November 23

There are two things I want to get out of the way before I start telling you about the film today.  Firstly:

*** There are spoilers in this!***

Oh man.  Three things, then.  Three things.  Second thing is, I am a dangerously massive fanboy for Warren Ellis.  I don’t really like going into a film already biased either for or against its artistic merits, but I was practically eating my own face with anticipation for this one.

And thirdly, I am also madly in love with Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman.  Helen Mirren is so badass I don’t know if I want to be her best friend or be her.  Morgan Freeman’s voice alone turns me into a glowing pillar of delight.  The mere fact that they are near each other, in the same shot sometimes, in RED (they’re on the poster!  Both of them!  Simultaneously!) is like cinematographical manna from heaven being fed directly into my brain through a glee tube.

So please remember that this film was seen through the eyes of what was basically a person fully transformed into a ziggurat of pure fandom; an obelisk of moist-eyed admiration.  Consequently, any words that have issued from my fingers as I type this have been vetted for inappropriate levels of fanboy, but I can’t promise that I’ll have caught all of them.  I can promise, however, that I have done my best.

But first off – and I’d really like to get this out of the way, because I think we all noticed it, didn’t we – there’s one scene that made me actually shout “NO!” in the cinema and made people look at me in disgust (sorry, Vue Cambridge!).

Okay.  The scene is this: Helen Mirren’s character, Victoria, gets shot in the abdomen in such a way that she genuinely thinks her life is at stake, and she prepares for a final showdown, unarmed and bleeding from the gut, and then! a man saves her.  He literally sweeps her off her combat-booted feet and whisks her off to safety.

This is a cliché that we have ingrained into our social consciousness as thoroughly and as needlessly fictionally as “frogs turn into princes when adequately tongued.”  “Woman cannot save self; man saves woman.”  At least the frog-kissing trope doesn’t then translate across into how people commonly regard frogs.  But this “women are crap and need saving” bollocks translates, doesn’t it?  You get it everywhere, from fairytales to adverts; this pointless, condescending infantilism.  This is a point at which I would like to refer you to Bill Bailey’s magnificent “Beautiful Ladies” song, which tears the piss out of this trope perfectly.

Beautiful ladies, in emergency situations!
Beautiful ladies are lovely, but sometimes they don’t take care
They’re too busy with their makeup, or combing their lovely hair
To take basic safety precautions.

The most aggravating thing about it is that – well, okay, some viewers may find that it made the re-emergence of this cliché less annoying – Helen Mirren kicks fourteen types of arse in this.  She has a free-mounted machine gun.  She blasts her way through waves of drones with John Malkovich meekly in the background handing her more guns.  She explicitly changes out of her heels into a nice pair of combat boots to handle the violence.  She knows surgery and hides guns under flower-arranging.  So, for me, to have her punctured and enlimpened like a party balloon just made me want to cry.

Image: cartoon illustration of an alternate outcome for Helen Mirren's character in RED, titled 'How I Wish That Bit Had Gone': "Oh, a gunshot wound. HA! Fools! I know... surgery!"

And then she SMASHED STUFF

That said, I was so delighted by her character that I was genuinely pleased that she’d been saved, rather than sacrificed.  So the getting-saved-by-a-man was more pleasing to me than if she hadn’t, and been left to die, but she’s an epic-level character!  She shouldn’t be shot down by a faceless NPC1 in the first place!

So there’s that.

On the whole, though, RED absolutely delighted me.  The dialogue is hilarious, the action sequences beautifully shot and choreographed, and the whole thing is a visual feast.  The characters are chunky and believable – yes, including The Girl, the love interest, the object of obsession – and while they’re all deeply flawed in some critical respect, they’re likeable.

Let’s take Bruce Willis’s character, Frank.  He’s the hero.  He’s badass in pretty much every respect, but his treatment of The Love Interest, Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), at the beginning is absolutely repulsive.  We are right by her side when she makes a bid for escape – it doesn’t matter if what he says is best for her and that we’ve seen his house shot to pieces, the fact of the matter is that he has BROKEN INTO HER HOUSE AND KIDNAPPED HER.  As she says, “You can’t just go around duct-taping people”.  And we can absolutely sympathise with her.  She’s just an ordinary person.  And you can’t just go around duct-taping people.

I actually loved her to bits.  She felt like someone I knew, and the scene where she brazens her way out of a Situation In A Lift is a spectacular testament to how ordinary people can rise to a challenge.  She’s great.  Also, that’s a very gratifying example of her saving Frank.

Interestingly, this film was given an opportunity to pass the Bechdel Test.  Sarah and Victoria are left alone in the snow, while Victoria takes aim at some kneecaps with a sniper rifle.  They discuss Frank.  And then Victoria threatens to kill Sarah and hide the body.  So it had this whole assenting-to-trope/subversion thing going on.  The opportunity was there! But sadly missed!  But I think it also does just go to show that a film doesn’t have to pass the Bechdel Test to also have brilliant female characters in (and visa versa: Sex And The City 2 springs to mind…).

Because it does, you know.  It’s not just Sarah and Victoria (HELENNNN) that are brilliant in this; a tiny bit-part background character with no name gets held at gunpoint by John Malkovich’s marvellously paranoid Marvin.  He declaims her as following them, and having a gun in her handbag.  This is awful; she is terrified and shaking, and Marvin is the bad guy.  And then, it is revealed that yes, she was following them, and yes, she does have a gun.  It is a rocket launcher.  And if that’s not brilliant, I don’t know what is.  The gun-wielding grunt role isn’t just restricted to the men in this film.  And that’s good.  I’m up for that.  Let us have equal opportunities in both our heroes AND our villains.


  • The dialogue is hewn from purest diamond genius
  • The characters make sense and are, despite their flaws, readily engageable-with
  • There is a real estate agent with a rocket launcher
  • It looks edibly good


  • Helen Mirren gets shot and has to be rescued by a man and that is boring
  • Helen Mirren doesn’t play all the roles
  1. Non-player Character for the non-nerds. I’m sorry, everyone. []
10 Responses leave one →
  1. theoxfordgirl permalink
    November 23, 2010

    Yes – this, all of it, really; although…

    When I first saw the film (and I should hasten to add that in general my impression is of OVERWHELMING GLEE AND AWESOME and I am still SPECTACULARLY EXCITED and Warren Ellis has bought his daughter a pony with the money from this film, did you know that? A PONY) I was disturbed – and I am still disturbed – by the abusive-turned-“fluffy” nature of the relationship between Frank and Sarah. I don’t think the transition from “kidnapper” to “lover” was handled as elegantly and it could have been and it leaves a slightly bitter taste in my mouth.

    I mean, “You can’t just go around duct-taping people” – but – what consequences does the film show for kidnapping of a young woman? She falls into his arms…

    Oh, and Inevitable Dead Black Dude, of course. :(

    BUT. Those things aside. THIS IS AN AWESOME MOVIE. And anything is going to have flaws. And it still does lots of things better than anything anywhere else ever. HELEN MIRREN. MACHINE GUN.

    • Markgraf permalink
      November 23, 2010

      Yes, ugh. I was genuinely surprised at that particular turn around. I mean, yes, he does save her life when she’s drugged, but that’s really not enough, is it, to counterbalance the fact that he literally kidnapped her with little-to-no explanation at the beginning.

      So, so sad at Inevitable Dead Black Dude. MORGAN, WHY. MORGAN, I LOVE YOU, MORGAN.

      So yes. I should, really, have mentioned those things. But I was too busy with my GLEE TUBE.

      GLEE TUBE.

  2. Miranda permalink*
    November 23, 2010

    I am reliably informed by fans of the comic that the film is wildly different from it to the point that some fans have commented “they barely needed to buy the rights to the comic, they could have named it something else and NO ONE WOULD KNOW!”, since it diverges so wildly. I wonder if the relationship is handled better there? Or… if there even *is* a relationship? I seem to remember being told that the comic is very much Frank-as-loner, without a team, so Victoria doesn’t even exist, that Sarah’s in it but much less so, and that it’s quite, quite darker than the film.

    • November 23, 2010

      Yes, basically.

      (Spoilers for the comic comin’ up:)

      1) There is no relationship between Paul (Frank) and Sally (Sarah) – or rather there is, but it’s not a romantic one.
      2) The comic is not a comedy. It’s a three issue short story about Paul being the baddest badass who ever badassed.

  3. November 23, 2010

    I’ll admit, I was one of the people who cheered when Helen was swept off her feet, because I’m a helpless romantic and the context was awesome – here she was, the BAMFest BAMF in the whole world, cutting through gunman after gunman (and did you notice her formal ‘dress’ was actually trousers), and taking a bullet for the cause because she’s fearless, and just when she’s prepping herself up to face the enivtable, she’s swept off her feet by the love of her life. I’m a total sucker for twilight romances, and given their history and all the forces that had been keeping them apart, and the sheer goddamn chemistry between them, that was the crowning moment of the movie for me.

    OTOH, I spent half the movie waiting for Morgan Freeman’s inevitable return to the fold. I mean, come on: with the first death fake out, and the irrelevance of his second “death”, and the fact that no one admitted to shooting him – there’s no possible narrative way he could actually be dead.


  4. Russell permalink
    November 23, 2010

    But the fact that Ivan rescues Victoria is an important and sweet part of their love story and rekindling their romance. I know “man saves woman” is a cliche but lots of story tropes we now recognise as cliches are reused over and over and aren’t necessarily “bad”. The success is in the delivery and for my part I don’t really feel that in this particular instance it was unfeminist or poorly done. I thought it was sweet and romantic.

    Well, as romantic as you can get whilst one partner is bleeding to death from a bullet wound.

  5. wererogue permalink
    November 23, 2010

    One of the things that made me saddest is that while Helen Mirren was undeniably badass, the film shied away from showing her actually kill anybody. I don’t remember whether she mows anyone down during the climax, but Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman all shoot someone in the face at points in the movie, and in Helen Mirren’s sniper rifle scene, she just gives covering fire – she even misses Karl Urban when he’s dead in her sights. Maybe she’s just giving covering fire, but it felt like squeamishness on the director’s part to me.

    However, my wife and I came out of the film beaming – it’s so much fun!

    • Miranda permalink*
      November 23, 2010

      I think maybe there’s an interesting wider trend in here somewhere about how women are filmed when they do action sequences or violence. I remember ‘graf looking at Salt for this site and commenting that the camera rarely pointed at what the heroine was doing, choosing instead to focus on *her* face at moments of gore. Compare Craig’s Bond, where we see the effect of his actions as well as the act.

      I still haven’t seen RED, because when around half the team went I stayed home to do some site admin here! Might have to get the DVD.

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