Cast: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Karl Urban, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss
Director: Robert Schwentke
They were trying to sneak that one past me. The first Bowen Rule of the Cinema: There has never been a good movie that contains the phrase “Copy that.” But what if they say, “Roger that,” instead? What then? Does the rule apply?
Let’s face it – from the first spunkless assault-team cliche amid Bruce Willis’ suburban Christmas decorations, Red had “copy that” written all over it. But it took awhile for the inevitable to happen. After an hour of wondering if I would need a Synonym Corollary, the movie finally coughed up the “copy that” that we could all see coming. You’ve heard that the criminal wants to confess? So it goes.
It’s not that “copy that” is a cause of a bad movie, nor some linguistic leprechaun that plants a bad film at the end of the rainbow. Rather “copy that” strikes me as a leftover of lazy screenwriting, a symptom of less than 100 percent effort. It means that in all the time from script to screen, no one bothered to imagine a better thing for the character to say.
Laziness is something that I want to talk about in relation to Red, a languishing DC Comics adaptation about retired CIA assassins fighting against people who want them in permanent retirement. I want to talk about it in terms of this proposition: Irony in action movies is dead.
It used to be, particularly in nineties indie cinema, that you could take a stock movie situation, remove the serious character, introduce a quirky character in that place, and voila, you have satire. As a famous example, there’s Harvey Keitel’s “cleaner” character in Pulp Fiction, a play on the dead-serious cleaner in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita.
Once upon a time, that sort of flip ironic detachment counted as hip and satirical. But after so many times, irony has come to hide lazy screenwriting and characters we don’t care about. When a film sells itself with the calculated oddness of 65-year-old Helen Mirren firing a machine gun, the familiarity of the irony reflex means it has lost the satirical charge. It’s just lazy and flat and dead. To misquote Bruce Willis … Red’s dead, baby. Red’s dead.
Take a look at the successful action movies this year, stuff like Inception and The Town. There are romantic strands in both films. Some would label these strands cliche or melodramatic. To say that is to miss the point: these romantic strands are intensely sincere. The successful action films of late share that sincerity. The unsuccessful ones (like Red or Knight and Day) are void of sincerity. They float in the comic-geek netherworld of unreality. Even the explosions don’t really mean it.