- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2011

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of digital video discs (compatible with DVD-ROM and Blu-ray-enabled computers and home entertainment centers) and also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

Red (Summit Entertainment, rated PG-13, $34.99)  A 2003 WildStorm comic-book miniseries from writer Warren Ellis and artist Cully Hamner offered the loose framework last fall for a popcorn-munching movie packed with star power, tongue-in-cheek humor and action.

Its arrival on the high-definition format means viewers once again can appreciate the predicament of retired black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses.

Bruce Willis and his patented grin star as Moses, a RED (retired and extremely dangerous) who quickly finds himself under attack by a group of agents at his quiet suburban Cleveland home.

Not only is he ready for the challenge, but it forces him to bring back some of his retired posse  a breathtaking lineup of heroes and villains for film lovers  to outmaneuver the bad guys.

As Mr. Willis’ legendary co-stars arrived on-screen, I could not remember ever seeing a comic-book movie starring this level of talent.

Four Academy Award winners, to be exact — Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Richard Dreyfuss and Ernest Borgnine — plus the major casting coup of John Malkovich as a psycho buddy for good measure.

Now, back to the story. Toss in a new long-distance romance for the hero (Mary-Louise Parker holds her own against the heavyweights), Moses breaking into an arms dealer’s fortress and the CIA, and the group’s attempted assassination of a government official, and we have quite the tidy action thriller.

The over-the-top silliness is easy to digest, as the cast obviously is having as much fun with the audience as with each other.

The explosive special effects and gun battles look as if they were ripped from a comic-book panel (especially some of the fun with a grenade launcher) and the film’s pacing never bores.

Director Robert Schwentke skillfully keeps the actors from chewing up too much scenery while letting them playfully apply their craft.

Suffice to report, I doubt I will ever again see Helen Mirren looking through the scope of a massive sniper rifle or wielding an M2 Browning-mounted machine gun. Those moments still make me smile.

Best extras: The single Blu-ray disc contains Red: Access, one of the better interactive on-screen overlays I have seen.

Through an a la carte menu, viewers first choose from multimedia events or text-box topics, including “Did You Know?” (useless facts for “Jeopardy!” junkies), “Damage Control” (background on the weapons, tech and laws) and “Retired Hall of Fame” (short bios on famous agents) that will pop up during the film.

For example, “CIA Exposed” segments offer animated shorts on the agency’s LSD experiments, listening devices and a briefing on a covert operation in Guatemala. “Expert Intel” features commentary from retired CIA field officer Robert Baer (shown in silhouette, of course).

An inconspicuous side navigation menu enables viewers to move to the next event, select specific event topics and even watch a countdown to seeing the next chunk of information.

Despite that nifty interactive, I’ll call the extras as a whole a missed opportunity for DC Comics and its imprint WildStorm. Fans get no minicomic in the package or any issues of the comic to view virtually on screen.

Read all about it: Although the movie offers a much lighter and less violent experience, fans should check out the original source material through the Red trade paperback ($14.99), which compiles the three-issue series.

Also, in late 2010, Mr. Hamner drew a prequel to his miniseries and four one-shot tie-ins to the movie. The whole bundle soon will be collected into a trade paperback called “Red: Better R.E.D. than Dead” ($14.99).

• Joseph Szadkowski can be reached at jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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