It used to be as easy as rolling off an icy log on the Volga: Americans were good, the Soviets were bad and any unshaven malefactor with a Russian accent could get Harrison Ford, Sean Connery or even Pierce Brosnan onto a plane, tank or submarine, buckling their swashes and preserving civilization.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Hollywood has had to turn its gaze elsewhere in locating soulless, blackhearted villainy, and it's often looked within: to secret governments, American corporate gangsters and - again and again - the CIA: "The Quiet American," "Body of Lies," "Syriana" and "The Bourne Supremacy" are just a few of the relatively recent movies that have portrayed the Central Intelligence Agency - which must have the worst PR in the history of secretive government entities - as the home base of the heart of darkness.
Except for all the laughs, the new comedy-thriller "Red" - based on the graphic novel written by Warren Ellis, illustrated by Cully Hamner and published by DC Comics' Wildstorm imprint - doesn't tamper too much with the portraiture. The film, which opens Friday, offers a CIA that is evil, efficient and incompetent and which takes no prisoners, even among its pensioners: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich all play characters labeled "RED" - "Retired: Extremely Dangerous" - and, because of what they know, are considered liabilities. (Mary-Louise Parker, as Willis' love interest, is our wide-eyed, not-quite-innocent stand-in.)
Central Intelligence old age
Are they all in danger? Well, consider the cast: Youth may be the currency of Hollywood, but in the case of "Red," age comes in a much higher and more lethal caliber.
"Red" may be part of a spy-movie renaissance. "It was out for a long time," producer Lorenzo di Boneventura said of the genre, "but I think 'Bourne' brought it back. There was fatigue 12, 15 years ago. Then 'Bourne' convinces people the fatigue is gone and everybody comes."
Like "Salt," another Di Boneventura film, "Red" is fun. It even looks like it may have been fun to make, and Freeman agrees it was. "It's not always the case," he said, "but generally, if you look like you were having fun, you probably were having fun."
Despite the silliness and explosions, "Red" is also a political movie: Doesn't the concept, that forces within the government would be committing assassinations and other illegal acts, subvert the concept of democracy in action? "I don't know if it subverts it," Freeman said of "Red," "or just underlines it" - "it" being the state of a nation caught between adversarial interests. "However you can get the audience's attention is a good way to do it."
The script's the thing
Freeman said he chooses movies based on the script. "It doesn't matter if you're killing somebody, or getting killed, if it's a good story, it's fun to do," he said, while admitting, "I've done things in spite of script reservations, because you need to get paid," and sometimes you believe in the message.
"Especially in light of the times we're living in right now," he said, "because we're on the verge of some serious mess; look the other way for a minute and we're going to be up a creek."
Although he's played Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela, the president of the United States and God (twice), Freeman, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for "Million Dollar Baby," admits he's "never been all that politically involved. If I can make a difference on stage, then that's where I'm going to do it."
Which puts him in a class apart from many of his Hollywood colleagues, just as "Red" exists in its own hybrid category: A film that takes a very casually comic approach to American realpolitik, clandestine authority and evil perpetrators who seem based on real people. Richard Dreyfuss, for instance, plays a loathsome war profiteer who seems vaguely reminiscent of another character Dreyfuss played, in Oliver Stone's "W." And when it's suggested to Freeman that Dreyfuss could make a very decent living just playing Dick Cheney, Freeman did what "Red's" producers hope their audiences will do. He just laughed and laughed.