Thursday, November 4, 2010


Warren Ellis has long been my favorite comics writer (that is, he's strictly a writer and not a cartoonist), and I'm glad one of his books has finally been adapted into a film. The man's a prolific and uneven writer, and frankly RED is an odd choice to adapt, not just speaking of Ellis's oeuvre but of adult comics in general. RED is neither his best nor his worst book, but a throwaway mini-series written in between a couple masterpieces of long-form comics, TRANSMETROPOLITAN and PLANETARY. While it is high-concept -- retired CIA agent comes out of the woodwork to defend his life -- it wasn't particularly successful with fans or sales, only skims the surface of Ellis's strengths as a writer, and isn't looked upon with any great esteem in the 'literate' comics community other than the name recognition its author brings. RED is like SCOTT PILGRIM: rarely would you find the book on the shelf of someone who didn't already read comics (unless I personally had shoved it into their hands). That's changed for PILGRIM now that the movie's out, but I don't know if the same will happen for RED.

RED the film holds onto only the frame of the comic book story: secret CIA agent defends his life against the very agency that made him. Basically the comic takes the doomed man approach:  big plot set up at the beginning, no real unfolding plot exposition after that. We get impressions of the awful things Moses has done in the past. An inexperienced CIA director can't handle the information, and "disgusted by what he has seen, and fearing public reaction should any of those secrets leak out, he orders the assassination of Moses" (via wikipedia)We hang out with this crazy person Moses, get to know him on his path, watch all of the darkly funny ways he kills people. 

Moses is a doomed man who fights his way to the CIA director not to figure out some larger conspiracy, but out of some basic need to prove that he deserved to remain a silent, inactive and retired monster who has now been robbed of his ability to deal with all the horrible things he's done in his life. Any character development is held off until the final moments of the book, and the result is surprisingly touching. 

I also enjoy how the page can barely look at him. Moses is rarely seen in a close up. It's all fragments of his body, and long shots, like we're avoiding taking a close look at this guy. The effect is very scary. The comic also has a swift sense of story: Moses looks through a sniper rifle and is met with 4 quick flashbacks.

Everything we need to know about Moses's past. No words, no names (fictional or otherwise), and all taken care of in a quick page. Pages like this highlight Ellis's strength for synchronicity, and I think he does it better than a lot of writers. Here he ties RED's comic universe to our universe via political assassinations. It could feel ham-handed with exposition, and in a way maybe it still does (JFK? Really?), but it's over so quickly that we attribute it to Moses's internal character rather than any authorial exposition. He's got a knack for it, and even when it's silly he does it with speed. 

The movie flips the structure of the book around: Moses is on the run to figure out some kind of mystery involving an elaborate back-plot of characters, and we are doled out information little by little as we piece together what's going on behind the scenes. 

Moses is on a list of people to be killed. In the film, he's no longer alone. Instead, this is a retired-team action movie, one of many to hit theaters this year. The screenwriters actually made RED into a funny acronym: "Retired Extremely Dangerous." He assembles his team (also on the kill-list) to fight their way to the top of the conspiracy.

I think the lone gunman story is a lot more interesting, and would have probably been a better Willis vehicle in the long run. Willis is so lax, charming and bad ass that he could easily have held an audiences attention with a darker, more isolated Moses. Instead the script spends a lot of time trying to get us to like him, which is totally unnecessary. It also spends a lot of time keeping you up to date on plot twists and turns without letting any of them really take hold.

The plot is vague and cumbersome. I still don't know what happened in Guatemala. I still don't care, for that matter. The political aspects of the story are handled with kid gloves, which means that the big reveal of the picture falls flat on its face. After 80 minutes of searching,  The Mastermind of the plot is revealed to be ... Senator Robert Stanton. Neither a real Senator, nor an pre-existing character in the movie. Just ... some guy. The characters rush to explain to me why he is significant and why I should care, but I don't.

I am reminded of Ellis's quick ability to associate real politics with his plot. Why spend two hours beating around the bush? In his review, Ebert very astutely notes how this feels not only in the endless exposition, but in the performances as well: 

"The bad guys are in the upper reaches of the CIA, and the conspiracy reaches all the way to a vice president with connections to a huge private defense contractor. This man is played by Richard Dreyfuss, who subtly signals to us, “You only think this is my Dick Cheney imitation, but if the studio let me loose, I could nail this role.” 

Whenever it counts, the filmmakers have completely abandoned the themes of the book. This isn't a story about dealing with old age, it's a story about dealing with a changing country.

 It's not that Moses is old, it's that the younger generation are mutated.

Robert Schwentke doesn't seem to make too much of this shift. In his interview at iamrogue:

"What was the biggest challenge for you to bring this graphic novel to the big screen?

Well, getting the tone right was something that we spent a fair amount of time on and just calibrating it right. "

"SHH: I remember a couple years ago the first time we talked about this, you were saying it already drifted away from the comic book. Obviously, visually it's nothing at all like the comic.

Schwentke: No, I mean, I felt like that in sort of making the narrative bigger you had to make certain choices, and I didn't mind moving away from the darker tone of the comic book. I always feel that adaptations don't ever obliterate what they're based on. I mean, they both still exist, and I think they're actually in spirit, they're very close."

I disagree. I can understand the need to make things more fun, or as Schwentke put it, "move the emphasis more to the comedic while still having people blow up," but in the process things go haywire. In my eyes, they've totally sacrificed the tone of the book for the tone of the movie, which would be fine if the comedy and fun of the movie were successful. Instead, everyone feels bored, actors and audience at my screening alike. There were one or two big laughs, but Malkovich was the only one consistently entertaining. In fact, I really liked watching him, and he made a ton of funny, hammy faces that fit right in with the tone Schwentke was going for. Mary Louise-Parker's character is so inconsistent that she comes off as vapid and an unintentionally creepy sex-addict. This sounds like an exaggeration, but somewhere in the middle of the film the script goes off the rails, and by the end of the movie I was revolted by her. The ending was downright weird. 

Surprisingly, the film's done well in spite of this. tells me that the film has made its $58M budget back and more, and has placed in the top five for three weeks straight. Still, I wouldn't call it a good movie, or even a good adaptation. It is sometimes fun, and sometimes funny, but more often than not it was really apparently bad filmmaking. I'm glad it's done as well as it has because I'd like to see Ellis and his adaptations both succeed. 

When SCOTT PILGRIM tanked, I was bummed for Edgar Wright, but the silver lining there was that the book has been selling like crazy. Crazy numbers that are well deserved for a very funny and touching comic book. I think the PILGRIM movie captured some of the spirit of the book at the expense of the slower, more floaty pace that a 1200 page comic book allows for, but that's OK since Wright turned it into a very funny and fun movie to watch. RED goes the other way on almost all accounts. A book that will take you maybe 30 minutes to read if you're going slowly has been inflated to almost two hours, and I spent most of that time trying to care. 

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