Seeing “RED”

Warren Ellis is one of the best writers I’ve ever read.  Now if you aren’t familiar with the name  you don’t read comic books because that’s where Ellis built his rep.   One of his best works is a three-issue arc about a grumpy old man who used to be the CIA’s deadliest assassin.  His forced retirement isn’t going too well because the CIA is trying to kill him.  Red was a tight, taut and thrilling little read that became the first Ellis story to get the big sceen Hollywood treatment.

The problem is Red  has now become an acronym (Retired, Extremely Dangerous) and looks nothing at all like the 3-issue mini-series it was taken from (I can’t call this an “adaptation”).  There were maybe three or four characters in the comic and none of them included the characters played by Freeman, Malkovich and Mirren.  This looks like a geriatric version of The A-Team.

Why bother making these properties if you’re going to totally gut them?   Ellis wrote a simple tale of a retired CIA agent being hunted down by the new head of the agency because he was terrified of what the Bruce Willis character had done when he worked for them.   They go after him and then he goes after them.  It’s not complicated.

That seems to have gone missing.  What DC Comics and Summit Entertainment (not Warner Brothers?) have done is replace Ellis’ lean, sparse story with a bloated variation of Oceans 11, Space Cowboys, Wild Hogs  and about two dozen other variations on the same theme.   An old CIA agent takes on his former employees all by himself and kills a lot of them along the way?   Guess that wasn’t enough for the Hollywood boys.  “Yeah, that’s great, but it’s kind of limited.  Let’s EXPAND it.”   I had someone like Robert Duvall in mind to play the part.  At 55, Willis is actually too young for the role but I guess the suits figure Willis can “open” a movie (not that he has lately).   Since Willis gave up wearing wigs with his last two flicks, Surrogates and Cop Out  it looks like he’s giving up acting as well.

All I needed was Paul (not Frank) Moses waging a one-man war against the CIA, straight, no chaser.  Yes, it was only three issues with perhaps four characters, little dialogue and less back story, but it worked just fine.  This looks like the typical “let’s-put-the-band-back-together-for-one-last mission/heist/job. What was a well-executed, but admittedly far smaller story has become a junked-up, warmed-over action comedy with a bunch of first class talent  cashing some fat checks  and doing nothing that requires any genuine acting. 

Here’s the synopsis for Red :  Frank (Bruce Willis), Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Helen Mirren) used to be the CIA’s top agents – but the secrets they know just made them the Agency’s top targets.  Now framed for assassination, they must use all of their collective cunning, experience and teamwork to stay one step ahead of their deadly pursuers and stay alive.  To stop the operation, the team embarks on an impossible, cross-country mission to break into the top-secret CIA headquarters, where they will uncover one of the biggest conspiracies and cover-ups in government history.

An impossible mission?  Yeah, we know how difficult those that can be.   I don’t care that Red the movie is going to be so different from Red the comic.  Adaptations don’t have to be faithful to the source material.  Kick-Ass worked better as a film than comic because of the inclusion of some much needed humor.   I care that the movie looks so trite and uninteresting compared to the comic.  Why even need to adapt  Ellis and artist Cully Hamner’s work  for something that has been made a dozen times already?

For the answer to that, I’ll refer to the man himself who wrote on

First off: RED, the book, is 66 pages long. If you were to film 66 pages of comics, you might, might just about get 40 minutes of film out of it. If you added a musical number. The comics-page to film-minute ratio is pretty bad. A straight adaptation of a 150-page graphic novel might, if you squint at it, get you a 100-minute film. But it’s unlikely, because comics and films use time so differently. One page with four lines of dialogue on it can be slowed to a crawl to the point where you have to spend several minutes digesting the information on it. In film, however, four lines of dialogue is four lines of dialogue, and you can’t just pronounce it very slowly for the same time consumption. Beyond filmic/dramatic effects like the pause or montage or whatever, film is timelocked.
So, yes, RED the film is very different. Not least because it needed to generate more material than the book itself actually constituted.  It is in fact best to consider RED as a short story being adapted into film

The tone: no, the film isn’t as grim as the book. The book is pretty grim. But it’s also pretty small. When I sell the rights to a book, they buy the right to adapt it in whatever way they see fit. I can accept that they wanted a lighter film, and, as I’ve said before, the script is very enjoyable and tight as a drum. They haven’t adapted it badly, by any means. People who’ve enjoyed the graphic novel will have to accept that it’s an adaptation and that by definition means that it’s going to be a different beast from the book. The film has the same DNA. It retains bits that are very clearly from the book, as well as, of course, the overall plotline. But it is, yes, lighter, and funnier. And if anyone has a real problem with that, I say to you once again:

Helen Mirren with a sniper rifle.

I mean, 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.

If Ellis is happy with this loose adaptation of his story, who am I to argue with him?   I’ve written plenty of stuff  and some orf it pretty good, but nothing anyone has ever thought highly enough to make a movie of.    I’ve seen a lot of movies, but I don’t know a thing about making one.   It’s just a little discouraging to see Red turned into  standard Hollywood rubbish with guns, explosions, cars crashing, glass breaking and PG-13 violence mining the tapped-out  “I’m too old for this shit” cliché. 

The unexpected sight of Helen Mirren blowing stuff up isn’t a sufficient enticement to plunk down $9 this October.  Maybe the final trailer and finished product will prove me wrong.   For now  Red looks  like  “strike three” of DC Comics properties joining The Losers and Jonah Hex on the fast track to DVD oblivion.

4 thoughts on “Seeing “RED”

  1. “The unexpected sight of Helen Mirren blowing stuff up isn’t a sufficient enticement to plunk down $9 this October”

    rofl: Are you KIDDING??

    I would spend my life savings to see ANY movie showing Mirren:

    1. Brandishing a huge, hard weapon of any kind.
    2. Pistol-whipping dudes.
    3. Hotly smirking down at said pistol-whipped dude.

    This movie has ALL three.

    Count me in.


  2. Seems to be a lot of reflection on a movie that isn’t even out yet.

    You said it earlier – if the author of the comic doesn’t have an issue with the movie adaption why should you? I probably wouldn’t be going to see it any way (at best it’s probably a rental) so why waste all this time going on about it?


    • Simply because Ellis is happy to take the check and go his merry way doesn’t mean I’m obligated to feel the same way. As someone who enjoyed Red, I consider myself part of the target audience for the movie. To see this trite and generic knock-off is just another reminder how Hollywood dumbs properties down and fucks them up.

      I don’t consider anything I blog about wasting time. That’s the reader’s call to make. If I did, I wouldn’t be blogging about it.


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