So I’m introducing a new script reviewer today because he’s a great writer and passionate about the craft (and he writes me weekly e-mails telling me how awesome Scriptshadow is). He kept raving to me about this awesome script he read that he just had to tell the world about. I tried to explain to him that I already had a backlog of script reviews in queue. He ignored me and sent the review anyway. Once I saw how passionate he was, I knew I had to post it. So I’d like to introduce everyone to… Michael Stark.
Random observations before I give Michael the reigns. Strange that the script title is also the name of Freeman’s most famous character? And what the hell happened to Bruce Willis??? When did he become a cranky old man?? It’s sad. I’ll still see anything he’s in. But after this interview, I won’t ever look at him the same way again.
Premise: A retired Black-Ops Agent must reassemble his old team to fight the new generation of high-tech assassins hunting him down.
About: Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman already attached to this comic book flick. ‘Nuff said.
Writers: The Brothers Erich and Jon Hoeber adapting a Sir Warren Ellis Graphic Novel
Details: 120 pages (November 14, 2008 first draft, revised)
First off, I’m old school. Not just kind of old school, but real old school. I’m typewriters and rotary dial phones and vinyl records and staples-in-the-navels of centerfolds kind of old school. So, I just can’t get into reading scripts as pdfs. Can’t stand it. I loved the fact that they had to pulp some thousand-year-old Sequoia just so I could read your fucking work of genius. Screenwriting is an art. It requires sacrifice. Trees must die! Toner cartridges must get depleted. There might even be papercuts.
I know the industry is trending green these days, but I swear on the life of your vegan girlfriend’s pound-rescued crack puppy that I promise to recycle all the paper you send me. I’ll fold every page of your fucking work of genius into assortments of barnyard origami to leave at crime scenes. I’ll wrap my kid’s peanut-free school-bound sandwiches with your untroubled third act. Hell, I’ll chew on every page of your sparkling dialogue till I can spit out a fine paste that’ll turn your high concept into reprocessed, adult diapers for June Allison.
Just gimme your words on paper. I need to have you in my hands. I gotta feel the true heft of your tome. I wanna get blisters on my fingers from turning the pages so goddamn fast. I want to take you in the can with me cause I just can’t put your magnum opus down. I want to jot down notes you’ll never read in the margins. I want to spill coffee all over your script at the Farmer’s Market and play keep away with it from Andre De Toth, whose depth perception has been kinda off these days. And, of course, for my troubles, I’m gonna steal your 1.5 inch brads when I’m finished, cause I’m not only old school, but I haven’t worked in like fucking forever and I gotta scrimp and scrounge and steal wherest I can.
This is just how it’s supposed to be done. Call me old fashioned, but screenplays are made to be read in one sitting. You wanna know why spec scripts aren’t selling right now? It ain’t the economy, stupid. It’s cause you listened to that liar, Al Gore, and you’re now dutifully sending them all out as pdf files! Producers and executives and movie stars and their assistants already have the attention spans of retarded, sugar-smacked hummingbirds. You think they’re gonna really read anybody’s script on their computers with all them fine distractions already loaded on their desktops like tournament canasta and barely legal porn?
Honestly, how many of you have actually read an entire screenplay on your computer in one sitting? Don’t tell me you didn’t check your facebook 18 times after you opened up the file. How often did you tweet before the second act rolled around? How many hands of solitaire did you play? Bet you already IMDBed the key grip of this flick while you’ve been skimming my opening rant.
Believe me, I’m equally guilty. I haven’t been able to do a single one-shot read through on my laptop of anything since this techno geek takeover. Nope, not once. Not till someone sent me Red.
That’s how engrossing this script was. Even the most ADHD of you fan boys will soar through this without once checking your emails or twiddling out a text. It’s just that absorbing.
Okay, maybe I’m overselling it a wee bit. The thing isn’t a great work of art. But, it is a great work of craft that’s worth studying. So, if you have a hankering to write an action film, you’ll learn a lot about plotting, pacing and narrative drive from reading Red.
Let me impart some wisdom on all you young scribes out there. I’m not advocating you forego the usual study of Chinatown, The Untouchables and the complete works of Joseph Campbell. But, if this script got both Bruce and Morgan so hot and bothered, I’d download it while you still can and scrutinize the shit out of it. Reread the mother till it becomes your mantra. When you get your next draft of “My Catalogue of Cool Shots” into something this tight, I guarantee it will get sold. Yup, even if you sent it off as a fucking pdf file.
So, why am I so impressed by yet another adaptation of yet another graphic novel? Well, for one, the source material is from Warren Ellis, the Godfather of funny paper scribblers. The screenwriting brothers in charge of distilling this comic into cinema are Erich and John Hoeber. They might not have made movie alchemy with their recent “Whiteout”, but the boys definitely spin yarn into gold this time around.
Now, I must warn you. You’ve seen this plot before. You’ve seen it many times before. Nothing new under the sun here – especially if you’ve ever seen a Jason Bourne flick or read any David Baldacci or Lee Child potboilers. Did the Brothers take all the genre conventions and spin them on their heads Electric Boogaloo style? Not exactly, it’sbstill pretty much standard fare. You have the same stock, way-high-up-in-the-Washington-food-chain villains and side switching patriotic uber-thugs revealed at the end. And, the Bruce Willis character is pretty much a Bruce Willis character only a little bit older — and, apparently, gonna actually be played by a little bit older Bruce Willis.
So, Mr. Hype Meister, why should I read this damned thing? For the pace, baby, for the pace. This thing leaps out of the gate and keeps building and escalating with a rare economy of action. Meaning, there are no superfluous scenes or even extraneous lines of dialogue. Every single set up has a payoff!!! They didn’t throw in a car chase barreling through the unfinished Panama Canal during an asteroid storm just for the sake of getting your attention. This is a lean cornbeef sandwich without an inch of fat kind of storytelling. Hell, even the crusts of the rye bread have been trimmed off.
This is one lean, mean fighting machine of a screenplay!
So, what it’s all about? Frank Moses is a retired Black-Ops agent. He hasn’t pulled a Burn Notice and isn’t scrambling to get back in the show by helping a new troubled civilian every episode. Frank basically keeps himself under the radar, adjusting to his AARP status by keeping fit with early morning sit-ups, trying his hand unsuccessfully at gardening and listening to his classic collection of 50s vinyl. His only contact with the outside world is with Sarah, the operator of the government office whose pension checks he accidentally-on-purpose keeps losing to perpetuate their little chats.
Their burgeoning friendship doesn’t seem forced at all. It’s funny, sweet and real. The writers allow us a little downtime to develop this. When we open, Frank just seems like an average Joe struggling with the boredom of retirement. You get the hint that he might be ex-military cause of his regimented morning routines. But, there’s no hint of the two-fisted events to follow. Maybe I was sent a sweet romantic comedy for the Angela Lansbury set.
We don’t know anything about Frank or his mercenary past till page 8 when a crack team of government killers suddenly turn up to his abode to take the old dude out. His ex-spy status has just turned from “Green” to “Red”. “Red” as in when someone uptown wants you seriously dead “Red”. And, we’re kinda amazed to see our rose gardening retiree so effortlessly, single-handedly take out their whole unit. He’s old, but not Bucket List or Bubba Ho-Tep old. Ain’t no Death Panel for our Frank Moses.
See, Frank is like me, old school. He listens to Vinyl, not MP3s. He does sit-ups, not crunches. He slowly courts a woman over the telephone, not going after her all balls-out like some Apatow/Smith scripted lothario. He’s a gentleman. He’s also a former one-gentleman killing machine that some big muckety-muck just stupidly forced back into the game. And, he’ll show the young turks assigned to euthanize him just how it was done back in the good old days.
He doesn’t need any real cool, high tech weaponry from the Cheney Foundation to annihilate you. He’s a Q-less, Luddite who doesn’t know gun fu or parkour, but can still take down the entire CIA with a paper clip, a long expired bottle of High Karate and a little bare-knuckled help from his Cold-War era friends.
But, first, Frank has to rescue the gal whom might be the only leverage his ex-agency has on him. She doesn’t go quietly. It exacts some smooth talking and duct tape on Frank’s part to get her out of harms way. Yes, you’ve seen this before in Three Days Of The Condor, but, didn’t I mention somewhere this was also a comedy? It’s Grumpy Old Men vs the entire Central Intelligence Agency. It’s John McClane action hero Willis morphed with the wisecracking Moonlighting David Addison Willis with some gray haired, Danny Glover Murtough “I’m too old for this kinda shit” thrown in for good measure. And, Casting Directors, the gal, should most definitely be played by a certain repartee-ready Gilmore Girl.
Now Frank is just as in the dark as we are as to why he’s suddenly chased by the best assassins our tax dollars can still buy. The rest of the first act and a good chunk of the second is him reaching out to the few industry contacts he has left – Joe, his 90-year-old-dying-of-liver-cancer mentor; Marvin (Freeman) a completely paranoid ex-compadre: Ivan, a Russian ex-spy denigrated now to desk duty at the Ruskie Embassy and Victoria, a B&B owning femme fatale who has been juggling her retirement with a little wet work here and there for the extra pocket scratch or maybe just for the kicks.
The guy running this raid on Entebbe is Cooper, the agency’s most efficient and loyal killer. Of course, he’d been trained by someone Frank had trained way back when Coop was just a young pup of a pitbull. He’s also quite the devout family man, getting a honey-do list from his wife while he restages his latest hit to look more like a convincing suicide.
So, what ensues is the old guard versus the better-armed, physically fitter, mentally sharper army of new kids.
Unlike the norm for this genre, there aren’t any red herrings, false leads or wrong turns. Remember that I told you this was an exceptionally lean and mean script. The narrative drive goes from Point A to Point Z seamlessly and without any pit stops. Each action beat gets either Frank a new team member, another obstacle placed in the way or a bit more intel on why he’s suddenly a hunted man. And, once he gets the why, our guy quickly goes on the offensive to payback the who.
The writers also chose not to bog us down with the usual detective work seen in most procedurals. Frank doesn’t have to leap through a lot of hoops to find out why he’s on the hit list. He basically has Joe run the thumb print off the thumb he ginzued off of one of his attackers and – BAM — we go from there. This was a wise choice cause it gives us far more time on Frank’s elaborate (and pleasurable) acts of table turning.
The sure to be scene stealing character is Frank’s old buddy, Marvin. He doesn’t just spout paranoid conspiracy theories, he practically foams at the mouth with them. He’s delusional and perhaps dangerous, but a total riot nonetheless. His choice as an asset is what’s so fun about this script. The audience is kept guessing if Marvin’s brain has finally been fried forever, making him a potentially huge liability (He was the agency’s main lab rat in their LSD experiments back in the 70s) or if he’s really still that super perceptive at the spy game.
Marvin gets many magnificent melt-down moments. He is suspicious of everyone and everything and it would be unwise to make any sudden movements or whip out your cellphone in his presence. While our rag tag team tries to quietly cross the Mexican border, he suddenly pulls a gun on a woman tourist, a middle-aged realtor, weaving her into his psychotic pastiche of black helicopters, satellite surveillance and the Patriot Act. I don’t want to spoil the scene, but this script adheres to strict Newtonian laws. To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.
All the characters here are blessed with snappy dialogue, intriguing back-stories and sheer likeability. Except for Frank, all of the supporting players sprang solely out of the imaginations of the screenwriters. Ellis’ three-issue miniseries was really just a cocktail napkin of carnage for the Hoebers to build off of.
Now, the sheer likeability factor is what will have the true Ellis disciples shouting “Heresy!” The comic’s consequent bloodbath has pretty much been excised. We may live in the age of Dexter, but the producers wanted to keep this caper strictly PG. And who really wants to see John McClane play a monster? The very thought is just so un-American.
Frank and Ivan share a John le Carré inspired cloak and dagger past. They reminisce about the Golden Age of the Cold War when spies were real spies. When it was considered bad form to even think about touching your target’s family. Cooper, representing the new breed, has the combined ethics of a rattlesnake, a used car salesman, and the entire Bush cabinet (minus Colin Powell of course). He’ll do anything necessary to serve Frank’s head on a platter to his bosses.
Perhaps that’s what stayed with me so long after reading Red. It’s really a throwback to an earlier era/age/style of screenwriting. It has action, but it doesn’t call attention to itself like today’s product. The sequences moves at a nice clip, but it’s totally devoid of any look-at-me-as-I-cleverly-off-someone-with-a-bednob-or-a-broomstick-or-something-else-you’ve-never-seen-before. We’re totally invested in these characters and I found myself getting gleeful as they miraculously pull their mission impossible off.
Red is different because it’s so refreshingly underwritten. You won’t get a jolt or a rush or a headache after putting it down. There’s an old showbiz axiom that admonishes to “Always leave them wanting more.” The Brothers Hoeber have deftly pulled that off. When I closed the file, I was already looking forward to Frank’s next adventure.
Even if I have to read that next adventure as a fucking pdf!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
 worth the read
[X ] impressive
[ ] genius
I’m sure the discussions that follow will accuse me of being overly generous, throwing off the Shadow’s strict script grading curve. I think it’s a great script to learn the craft from. The teacher inside me stands firmly by this high mark.
What I learned: Surely you don’t think an old dog like me can pick up any new tricks? Yes, I learned something. And, this is why I’m making Red required reading for all the young scriptors I’m tutoring. Most screenplays remind me of all the damned, superfluous notes Mariah Carrey squeezes into every fucking song she sings. Your scripts don’t need superfluous diva shit. Not every scene has to be an extravagant road trip tangent or an over the top set piece. Stop trying to light a fart or a building or a whole country on fire just to get my attention. You have my attention. So, just tell me a story.