Red: Multiple strong women in one action movie? Yes!
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.
Let's talk about Red. Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, a retired CIA wetworks operative whose fairly boring suburban life is suddenly interrupted by a hit squad arriving in his kitchen. Since he's not particularly interested in being killed, he reassembles his old team to track down who's gunning for them and why. Beyond that I'm not sure I can manage to de-spoiler this one, so if you haven't seen it and plan to, you may want to come back later.
Let's talk about the flies in the ointment first, because I enjoyed this movie quite a lot and I would like to end on a high note.
First, if there is one measly thing I have learned from writing on this blog for over four years, it's that we don't need any more movies where the black man dies first, especially when he's sacrificing himself for a bunch of white people. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with having the black man die first, just like there's nothing intrinsically wrong with having a culturally-approved-pretty skinny-but-busty white woman as an action heroine. But when it's done so often, it starts to get a little suspicious.
When the black man in question is Morgan Freeman, I doubt anyone sat around thinking "You know what we need here? Someone disposable. Someone we can use as cannon fodder... hmm... who could we get?" But isn't it amazing how in a work of fiction, created 100% by human beings who make choices, this is what we end up with? I don't know what went on in the source material, but y'all? Knock it off for a few years, put out a bunch of movies where the white guy dies first two-third of the time, just to even things out a bit. It also helps with the suspense thing when you're not so predictable.
Second, any time you see "good guy" characters in a film who are or have been part of the U.S. military or government, you need to check yourself as the film is trying to sell those folks as the good guys. Just like with The Losers, just because someone is suddenly the underdog doesn't mean there isn't blood on their hands, and not in that lighthearted action movie kind of way. The technique that's supposed to differentiate the Good Guys from the Bad Guys is usually showing the audience that the Bad Guys don't play by the rules of war - killing civilians, for example - and that strategy is employed here. But Frank is described as having toppled governments. What types of governments does the U.S. have a history of toppling, do you think? As with Lara Croft and colonialism, if you want me to completely accept this person as a hero, they need to get right with justice first.
Third, it's very convenient that Frank is right about who's on the hit list, because otherwise breaking into a woman's apartment, going through her belongings, kidnapping her, duct-taping her mouth shut, and tying her up is really, really horrifying. The term "Stockholm Syndrome" was used in my household in jest, but thank goodness this was a movie so they could make that all okay. Eventually. I would have preferred a serious apology later, though.
Fourth, of course the woman working in the nursing home (Marna, played by African-American/German/Danish actor Jaqueline Fleming) gives Morgan Freeman's character a "you bad thing" look and a half-smile after he's checking out her ass. He could probably get her fired.
Moving on to more pleasant topics.
I really enjoyed this movie! It was funny, well paced, and some stuff blew up!
From the trailer, I had assumed that Mary-Louise Parker played the role of Frank's handler, rather than his girlfriend. Perhaps a slightly green or desk-jockey type of agent assigned as a liaison with the retired operatives? My idea is much cooler than what actually happens, but the sweetness between her character Sarah and Frank in their initial phone calls won my heart. I was a little concerned that this was another case of the too typical older man - younger woman, but Willis is 55 and Parker is 46 so we're cool. (Would have been cooler the other way around... see? I'm full of good ideas.)
Bringing Sarah, a civilian, into the fold with a bunch of ex-assassins produced a strange dynamic for me. I wanted her to be awesome, but it wouldn't have made any sense for her to suddenly be knocking down bad guys or firing the automatic weapons. She was a CSR at the Social Security Administration who read romance novels for excitement. She's not Helen Mirren's fantastic character Victoria who makes time for contract killing between sessions of flower arranging. So I was watching her pretty closely to see how they would play Sarah. When she broke a headboard to escape from a motel room in which she'd been tied up, I was glad. When they decided to send her tumbling into the enemy's hands, I was not so glad. When she didn't start screaming and crying and acting like a damsel in distress, I was glad again. Overall, I think she was a believable strong female character minus any unbelievable skills.
Victoria, of course, was the real star on Team Lady. Warren Ellis said "...if you don't want to see a film with Helen Mirren with a sniper rifle, I'm not sure I want to know you." I would agree. It was unfortunate that the needing-to-be-rescued of Sarah was echoed with Victoria, almost leaving the ending of the film as "three white guys fix everything." There was an attempt at recovering that fumble, though, so I'll let that go.
I was also pleasantly surprised that Sarah and Victoria were not the only women. Rebecca Pidgeon plays the tough CIA boss who's pushing Karl Urban's character to get rid of Frank and get it done NOW. Audrey Wasilewski has a smaller role but with much bigger guns - and she's 43, not in her 20's, which made it even more enjoyable. The last time we reviewed a film where the women kicking ass were over 40, it was... Kung Fu Hustle?
Was the film still a boys' club? Yes. But having these four women around, three of them in large speaking roles, was an unexpected treat.
I can't say as much for the racial diversity in this film. Apparently they thought that if they had Morgan Freeman and one African-American nurse for him to ogle, that was enough? Now if Marna had turned out to be undercover in the nursing home, and she was actually a spy, we would have had something very interesting going on. (See, again, me with the good ideas. Too bad I'm too lazy to write a screenplay.)
I'm going to give Red three stars as a Strong Contender. I wouldn't quite call it anti-oppression, but even without my preferred revisions, the presence of four strong, tough women is an amazing feat in an action film. With more diverse casting, it would have been a Greatest Hit.