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Red, Waiting for Superman
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The action extravaganza Red is fun for a multitude of reasons, covering its bases quite nicely. Fans of movie stars doing the unexpected can revel in the sight of Dame Helen Mirren handling a machine gun the size of a Buckingham Palace guard house. Devotees of inventive visual gags can delight in the sequence in which John Malkovich uses his weapon to bat away a threatening hand grenade. And aficionados of clever scripting can enjoy the moment when Bruce Willis describes Karl Urban by noting he has "pretty hair."

There's much more to enjoy, which makes Red among the better action spectacles of recent vintage. It admittedly gets bogged down in the late going, when the tired genre conventions stake their claim with predictable double-crosses and expected character epiphanies, but overall, it's a smart, slick endeavor that gets added mileage from its cast of seasoned screen vets.

How seasoned? The arithmetic mean of the five top-billed stars' ages is 59; throw 93-year-old supporting player Ernest Borgnine into the equation, and the calculator starts to overheat.

Based on the DC comic book of the same name, Red actually plays like a wink to Danny Glover's classic line from the Lethal Weapon series: "I'm too old for this shit." In Red, these aging ex-agents are definitely not too old for the challenges placed in front of them, all of which stem from the fact that they're marked (along with several others) for termination as a result of their participation in a covert operation that took place back in 1981. Frank Moses (Willis) is one of these former CIA hotshots trying to save his own skin, a task made more difficult by the fact that (shades of Knight and Day) he also has to protect the innocent woman (a winsome Mary-Louise Parker) inadvertently mixed up in these dangerous dealings.

Over time, Frank is able to reunite several of his old-school allies -- collected Joe (Morgan Freeman), unhinged Marvin (Malkovich, whose off-kilter acting makes more sense here than in Secretariat) and steely Victoria (Mirren) -- and even secure some much-needed assistance from an old Cold War nemesis (Brian Cox). Opposing them are two determined CIA suits (Urban and Rebecca Pidgeon), a sleazy businessman (Richard Dreyfuss, reprising his oily-Republican act from The American President and W.) and no less than the vice president of the United States (Julian McMahon).

By employing imagination in all facets of the production, Red manages to avoid being lumped together with another recent title with AARP credentials: the generic, geriatric The Expendables. Besides, in a celebrity smackdown between Sylvester Stallone and Helen Mirren, my money's on the great Dame.



Davis Guggenheim, who won an Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth, here presents another inconvenient truth: The United States public school system just isn't working. This comes as a shock to absolutely no one, but unlike most recent nonfiction pieces that play partisan politics (usually siding with the left), this is a rare one that people from all walks of life can rally behind.

Still, what it does share in common with those other documentaries in this downtrodden age is its belief that we lowly citizens can all band together to help fix the problem. As usual, this is as much wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers as it is a viable reality, and Waiting for "Superman" is predictably heavy on the outrage and frustration and light on the inspiration and hope. But because it's a universal issue that affects legions of folks across the country -- particularly the children -- it's the sort of film that begs to be seen.

Documentaries are often no different than their fictional brethren in that they follow a template that provides viewers with easily designated good guys and bad guys. Here, the clear-cut hero is the passionate and charismatic Geoffrey Canada, head of the Harlem Children's Zone and one of the nation's most successful education reformers. The anti-hero(ine) role falls to Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of Washington, DC's public schools system whose hardline methods have improved DC's schools but angered many adults in the process (Rhee, who correctly notes that it always ends up being about the adults instead of the kids, resigned her post Oct. 13). As for the villain, that would be the American Federation of Teachers, painted here as a rigid union whose membership is more interested in protecting the terrible teachers among its ranks than in serving the children.

Speaking of the children, the heart of the film of course rests with its youngest subjects, five students (in LA, NYC and DC) whose best chance at having a bright future lies in whether they'll be randomly selected in their respective locales' education lotteries to be transferred from their low-performing neighborhood schools to successful charter schools. While this climactic section of the picture proves to be the most schematic (whose name or number will pop up next?), it's impossible not to be left either elated or heartbroken, depending on which way the (lottery) ball bounces.