Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker head the cast of the new action-comedy Red. But it was veteran thespian Ernest Borgnine who really made an impression on actor Karl Urban.
“Having Ernest Borgnine on set when he was 93 years old, putting in a full day at the office with a twinkle in his eye was part of the special moments of the film for me,” says Urban, the New Zealand-born actor who plays William Cooper, the CIA supervising operative out to assassinate older spook Willis and cronies Freeman, Mirren and Malkovich in the film.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Urban, a workmanlike actor, would be impressed with the achievements of Borgnine, an Oscar winner for Marty and a veteran of hundreds of other movies and TV shows.
The chameleon-like Urban, 32, seems to be building a career not unlike Borgnine’s, proving to be a dependable presence in parts good and evil, big and small. He was the outcast rider Eomer in the second and third Lord of the Rings movies, and also portrayed evil lackey Vaako in The Chronicles of Riddick, the Russian hitman Kirill in The Bourne Supremacy and “Bones” McCoy in the recent Star Trek feature.
And now comes Red (which stands for Ready and Extremely Dangerous), based on a pair of graphic novels by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner. Urban says he wasn’t familiar with the source material when he signed on for the cross-country, tongue-in-cheek thriller.
“My introduction to the material was through the script,” says Urban on a phone call from Dallas.”I went through the script and after I met the director (Robert Schwentke of Flightplan fame), I checked out the graphic novel which represents the first act of the film. It’s (the graphic novel) a lot darker and violent. The brothers (screenwriters John and Erich Hoeber) did a great job of creating a tapestry of the first film, using new elements and material already given to them.”
What made the part of Cooper especially of interest to Urban was the fact the role is a nemesis with a surprising extra dimension. “My character represents the reality of what’s going on in the head of the conglomerate of the people that are trying to kill them,” says Urban, relating to former agents Willis, Mirren, Freeman and Malkovich. “Here’s a CIA hitman and he also has a family and to get to this character was a great journey. There’s a definitive arc to the character. And to label him as a henchman or bad guy is selling the character short.”
Like the recent all-star Sylvester Stallone actioner The Expendables, Red centers on heroes dealing with time moving on. “The theme of age runs through the film,” says Urban, who recently finished co-starring in Priest, in which a holy man chases down vampires who kidnapped his niece. “It makes an audience think about the fact when we, as a society, retire people when they come to a certain age even if they have more to offer. And in relation to that, in the movie, the old school techniques trump the high tech stuff in this film. According to Robert Bayer, the way the CIA operates today, there’s a lot more reliance on technology and satellites, but the old way they operated was based on relationships with people they could get information from and making contacts with foreign nationals.”
For the part of Cooper, who is unknowingly embroiled in a conspiracy while chasing down Willis and company, Urban did a decent amount of research. “I read every book (ex-CIA agent and Syriana author) Robert Bayer wrote and he explained his experiences to me in the CIA,” says Urban. “I drew from what he said. My character is not a bad guy—he’s a CIA officer who is doing a job.”
One of Red’s highlights—along with watching Dame Helen Mirren brandish heavy artillery—is a fight between Willis and Urban. “I underwent a three-week training process specifically for this scene,” says Urban, who is slated to star in a reboot of Judge Dredd in the future. “We want the fight to represent the reality of what’s going on (in the movie). We wanted it to be stylish, have fury and a lot of feeling.”
As for Dame Helen, Urban says, “She had a ball and she’s been itching to do a film like this. She is one hot lady and everyone was smitten with her one way or another. She loved holding onto the guns.”
Here’s Irv’s review of the film: