Starring Brian Cox, Noel Fisher, Tom Sizemore, Kyle Gallner
Directed by Lucky McKee, Trygve Allister Diesen
Finding a Jack Ketchum novel used to be harder than an archeological dig, so it’s a bit surreal to see all these film versions coming out of the woodwork. Red is the third Ketchum movie to hit screens, following on the heels of Chris Sivertson’s superb adaptation of The Lost (review) and Gregory Wilson’s misguided take on The Girl Next Door (review). This one faced a long road to the screen under the direction of Lucky McKee, who was subsequently fired (can’t the guy ever catch a break?), and production was halted for six months before it finally wrapped under Norwegian director Trygve Allister Diesen.
A changing of the guard typically spells disaster for any movie, but luckily Red holds together thanks to a terrific lead performance from Brian Cox and solid source material, faithfully adapted by screenwriter Stephen Susco. Cox plays Avery Ludlow, a reclusive widower whose only companion is a fourteen-year-old dog named - you guessed it - Red. The two are out fishing one day when several juveniles show up with a shotgun and senselessly murder Avery’s best friend. The old man only asks for justice and an apology but finds that killing a dog is only a misdemeanor crime. Worse yet, the lead boy and triggerman refuses to fess up for Red’s murder and is backed by his wealthy father (played to sleazy perfection by Tom Sizemore). Mocked and tormented by the boys and their families, Av slowly realizes that the only way to get justice is to take it into his own hands.
Red sticks closely to the old vigilante formula, and it comes as no surprise that many have described it as "Death Wish with a dog." But it’s the film’s realism and sensitive subject matter that will make the blood boil in animal lovers everywhere. Av is also far more relatable than most revenge-driven characters, helped by the fact that Ketchum’s story never gives in to pulp. Most movies would turn Cox’s character into a gun-blasting Republican by the midway point, but Av does his best to retaliate as a law-abiding citizen. Only in his most desperate moments do things take a turn for the worst.
Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lecter) is one of cinema’s greatest thesps, but he has never had a starring role to sink his teeth into. As the film’s driving force, he turns in a deep, understated performance that should (but probably won’t) earn him an Oscar nod. Susco’s script gradually peels back the psychological layers to reveal a complex tragic figure whose loss symbolizes more than you would think. The supporting players are all top-notch, but for the most part this is a one-man show, and the story falters a bit when it tries to explore the other roles. Several underused sub-characters – including Robert Englund and Amanda Plummer as a pair of redneck parents and Ashley Laurence as Sizemore’s battered wife - enter and exit the movie at random and are little more than plot devices to get the audience on Cox’s side. Still, their intense performances are some of the film’s highlights.
The subdued HD cinematography makes Red look like a TV movie, and there are some uneven shifts in tone during the final reel, but this is still a rare case where multiple cooks don’t spoil the broth (although fans will debate which director is responsible for what). Red may be far from perfect, but it’s still a powerful story that goes to show how well realized characters can make the oldest of ideas seem fresh.
3 1/2 out of 5