Word of Mouth: ‘Red’ shows its age, and that’s a good thing

When producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura shopped “Red” around town a couple of years back, every studio but one passed on the movie. The reasons for rejection were consistent: They already had other films about the CIA, the source material (an obscure graphic novel by Warren Ellis) was overly dark, and the characters were too elderly.

That final excuse has turned into “Red’s” strongest selling point, as older moviegoers — and perhaps more than a few younger ticket buyers — are poised to push the Bruce Willis action-comedy toward a first-place finish this weekend.

Premiering in theaters two months after Sylvester Stallone’s over-the-hill ensemble yarn “The Expendables” generated robust business of nearly $250 million worldwide, Summit Entertainment’s “Red” is sparking so much early interest from audience members in their 40s and 50s that it could challenge Paramount’s “Jackass 3D” for the top box-office spot, with each film estimated to gross more than $20 million.

While Summit and Di Bonaventura have yet to move forward with a sequel, the movie that almost nobody wanted to make could soon become a franchise — not a bad outcome for a principal cast that includes two people in their 50s, three in their 60s, one in his 70s and 93-year-old Ernest Borgnine.

“To me, it’s all about attitude. It’s not about age,” says Di Bonaventura. “This movie is fun, irreverent and action-packed.”


Adds director Robert Schwentke about his AARP-eligible cast: “It actually enhanced the entertaining quality of the source material. It added a real sense of glee. Yes, they are older, but they are still able to kick [butt]. We haven’t seen that version of an action movie for a while.”

Even though Hollywood caters primarily to teenagers, considers pretty much any actor older than 40 over the hill and ditches adult-oriented dramas to make room for board-game adaptations, people of a certain age make up an unexpectedly large segment of multiplex patrons. According to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, moviegoers 24 and younger bought 47% of tickets last year. But people 40 and older purchased nearly a third of admissions, and when they embrace a movie — “Up,” “Gran Torino,” “Wild Hogs,” “The Bucket List,” “Julie & Julia” among recent examples — the revenue can be impressive.

“Red” stars the 55-year-old Willis as retired CIA operative Frank Moses. His life has turned into a boring, isolated routine; about the only human contact Moses enjoys is with a government clerk ( Mary-Louise Parker) he calls to pass the time.

When his suburban home is raided by machine-gun firing commandos, Moses, having dispatched the would-be killers, sets out to discover who in the U.S. government wants him dead.

To assist him, Moses assembles a team of former colleagues and rivals, played by the 56-year-old John Malkovich, the 64-year-old Brian Cox, the 65-year-old Helen Mirren and the 73-year-old Morgan Freeman. As they chase down villain Alexander Dunning (62-year-old Richard Dreyfuss), Moses turns to CIA record keeper Henry (Borgnine) for assistance. There are plenty of jokes about getting old; Willis’ character is called “Grandpa,” and Freeman’s character says he’s “not dead — just retired.” (The film’s title is an acronym for Retired, Extremely Dangerous).

The PG-13 rated movie features plenty of explosions and shootouts; Mirren’s former assassin Victoria wields a high-powered rifle in one scene, a machine gun in another. “I’ve never, ever done a scene like that before,” Mirren says with a laugh about one sequence where she and Malkovich, a paranoid former CIA operative, blast away at the Secret Service in a hotel kitchen. “I was so excited to do that.”

Like the filmmakers, Summit is hoping that “Red’s” appeal is hardly limited to the grown-up set; “The Expendables” performed remarkably well with younger moviegoers too. Audience tracking surveys show that while those most interested in seeing “Red” are people ages 35-44 (followed closely by those 45-59), the $60-million production is showing fairly strong appeal for older teens and young adults, particularly with boys and men. Though most of Summit’s ads have been pitched at the core older audience, it also has spots featuring Parker (who’s 46) and Karl Urban, the 38-year-old veteran of “Star Trek,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

“We try to categorize audiences as monolithic in their tastes, but they’re not,” Di Bonaventura says. “Audiences want to know one thing about a movie, ‘Is it fun?’ ” He says the success of “The Expendables” proves the point. “It just tells you that if you tell a good story in a fun way, the audience will respond. That’s what we’re hoping for with ‘Red’ — young and old.”

Mirren says she’s excited that the film embraces its cast’s advanced age. “Look, we are over the hill,” she says. “But the hill on the other side is very nice — very green and very verdant.”