A look back at how the Bruce Willis led ‘Red’ (2010) and ‘Red 2’ (2013) action comedies have actually aged quite well.

The recent news of Bruce Willis’ retirement and illness shattered many action fans, but we still have his (massive) filmography to cheer ourselves up. Willis has starred in so many brilliant action movies since the first Die Hard (1988) that there is much to choose from  – though let’s face it, some of his last films in the 2010s were quite low-quality and didn’t do the actor justice. Among them, one duology still stands out as uniquely fun and memorable: Red (2010) and Red 2 (2013) are loving and hilarious nods to the actor’s status as a legend – and Bruce Willis isn’t their only asset.

Bruce Willis in Red

Released in 2010, the first Red movie has a very simple premise: it centres on a team of elite CIA black ops agents who have now retired, and are hunted down by their former agency after its new head feel threatened by their knowledge. Their leader is Frank Moses (Bruce Willis, clearly having fun) a bored and depressed veteran who sees his house attacked by a squad in the middle of the night. Of course, he is able to effortlessly dispatch the assassins, but feels like he needs to gather his old team back together to investigate the matter. Frank enlists the help of his sick mentor Joe (Morgan Freeman), the crazy Marvin (John Malkovich) and even sophisticated MI6 assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren). On the way, he also meets Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a bored call centre employee who dreams of escaping her daily routine… and gets more than she bargained for when Frank embarks her on a dangerous journey! 

The film is unabashedly fun, and as befits its name – we learn that R.E.D. is an acronym for Retired and Extremely Dangerous – it gives older stars an opportunity to shine. Let’s face it, few action films discuss issues surrounding ageing, and most prefer to sweep it under the rug, pretending that actors (and characters) never change. Sometimes, the illusion works (who could guess Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise’s real age?) but other instances are less successful – no one can argue that Roger Moore’s performance in A View to a Kill (1985) hasn’t “aged” well.

Showing the New Recruits How it’s Done

Red takes the opposite approach, and deliberately plays with the fact that maybe its main cast isn’t as agile as it used to be… but that doesn’t mean they can’t put up a fight anymore! Instead, the movie highlights how valuable their experience of the field really is. Red is essentially a carefree action comedy, and this message is more of a pretext, but the film does respect its stars and what they have brought to action cinema. Forget the cliché of the elderly spy who needs to be saved by the new generation, here, the retired operatives are the ones who show new recruits how it’s done!

It’s the gallery of colourful characters which helps most of the jokes to land. A wild ride from beginning to end, the film has a straightforward plot and focuses on the rise back to the top of the core team – simple, but very effective. Willis delivers a fun and self-aware performance, but a special mentions goes to the improbable character played by John Malkovich: at the beginning of the film, Marvin Boggs has retired into a swamp, and threatens to kill anyone that dares set foot on his land. It is this explosive craziness which helps to make Marvin a thoroughly memorable character. He has a good excuse, too: as Sarah comes to find out, he was administered daily doses of LSD for years – and came out “relatively” sane! Helen Mirren as distinguished British assassin Victoria is another perfect pick, and all of her scenes are hilarious to watch, as she chatters away while dispatching henchmen.

But How Ultimate are They?

Is Red a perfect action movie? The honest answer is no: some of its action scenes feel a little underwhelming, lacking a grandiose element and proper stakes. But does that prevent it from being an ultimate watch? Definitely not!

The film was a critical and commercial success, surpassing expectations, so it is no surprise that a sequel saw the light of day just three years later. Red 2 was released in 2013, and while it remains a fun watch, it doesn’t live up to its predecessor’s heritage. The characters are still endearing and some good jokes are thrown in the mix, but the film falls into the classic “sequel trap”: it goes bigger in hopes of being better. You can expect more absurd stunts, a Spy-who-loved-me type Russian ex (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), and some lukewarm car chases. The film remains a fun watch – especially if you enjoyed the first one – but lacks the originality and self-awareness which made Red so enjoyable. Still, having one ultimate film starring Bruce Willis and another “half-ultimate” one is a joy, and I definitely recommend checking Red out if you haven’t already done so!