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How Faithful is the Red Movie Series to the Original Graphic Novel?

We're willing to bet you didn't even know these movies were based on a graphic novel.

By Josh Weiss
The cover of the graphic novel Red and Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) in Red (2010).

The action movie sub-genre of Bruce Willis kicking butt and taking names is a rather extensive one.

On one side, you've got the all-timers: Die HardThe Fifth Element, ArmageddonUnbreakableSin City, and Looper. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you've got some seriously underrated gems: The Last Boy ScoutLucky Number Slevin, The Whole Nine Yards, and — the subject of today's article — the Red duology (both films are now streaming on Peacock).

Based on the limited comic book written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Cully Hamner, Red and its 2013 sequel center around Frank Moses (Willis), a highly lethal black ops agent reluctantly brought out of retirement by a far-reaching government conspiracy hatched by individuals intent on killing anyone with knowledge of the nastiest misdeeds carried out by the U.S. Government.

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How Faithful Are the Two Red Movies to the Original Comic?

Published between 2003 and 2004 by the now-defunct Homage Comics (itself a subset of the DC-owned WildStorm banner), the Red comic has a pretty bare bones plot. When a spineless and shortsighted political appointee becomes director of the CIA, he decides to wipe the slate clean by ordering the assassination of Paul Moses, who killed countless men and women on behalf of the clandestine agency.

This turns out to be the worst move he could have made as Moses, still deadly and cunning, sets out to exact revenge on the people who revoked his quiet retirement. In many ways, the comic feels like a spiritual precursor to John Wick a decade before Keanu Reeves' world-class hitman added new life to the action genre. Haunted by his bloody past, Moses succeeds in killing everyone unfortunate enough to cross his path, including the new CIA director. The story ends on an ambiguous note, with Moses declaring himself to be a "monster" and urging a team of gun-toting security guards who have descended upon him to do their "best."

In addition to adding some levity to the violently dark source material, the two Red films considerably expand the world and roster of characters. Mr. Moses (renamed Frank in the screenplay) starts out in a state of isolated retirement and, like in the comic, he maintains a regular, phone-based correspondence with a government pension representative (Sally in the book, Sarah in the films).

Unlike the source material — which frames these phone conversations as strictly platonic — the first big screen adaptation helmed by Robert Schwentke adds a romantic wrinkle to the proceedings. Frank knowingly rips up his pension checks just so he can speak with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), who yearns for the espionage excitement she reads about in mass market paperbacks. In the comic, Moses unexpectedly shows up at Sally's apartment to take advantage of her CIA computer access. He doesn't hurt her, but leaves the woman visibly shaken (she, of course, had no idea about his sordid past, thinking he worked in the benign-sounding department of "Foreign Acquisitions").

In the movie, however, Moses kidnaps Sarah when it becomes clear there's a target on his back and since he's always chatting her up, they'll almost certainly come for her, too. While it's not exactly the best way to court a lady, the two characters end up falling in love by the end. Frank is no longer lonely and Sarah gets the excitement she's always dreamed about after years of working in a cubicle.

The government's motivation for wanting Frank dead gets a little more complicated in the movie. Rather than some disgusted CIA director looking to wipe away the sins of the past, we get a conspiracy related to the massacre of a Guatemalan village that Frank helped cover up in the 1980s. The scandal is threatened to be exposed by a New York Times journalist, prompting the systematic assassination of anyone with knowledge of the war crime-level incident, which potentially has ties to the Vice President (Julian McMahon) and arms dealer Alexander Dunning (Richard Dreyfuss). When a trained hit squad fails to eliminate Frank in his home, the CIA assigns one of its brightest young killers, William Cooper (Karl Urban), to the case.

Instead of going at it alone like his comic book counterpart, the movie iteration of Moses relies on a number of fellow black ops retirees: cancer-stricken Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), MK Ultra burnout Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), MI6 operative turned contract killer Victoria Winslow (Helen Mirren), and FSB contact Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox).

The title itself marks another key difference between the two versions. In the comic, the term "Red" is simply a code word meant to signify that Moses has left retirement and is actively killing once again. In the film, "RED" is an acronym for "Retired, Extremely Dangerous."

Directed by Dean Parisot, Red 2 goes completely off-script with a fresh story about Frank & Co. heading off to Europe to track down a highly dangerous nuclear weapon code-named "Nightshade" (developed by Anthony Hopkins' delightfully looney Dr. Bailey). The only connection to the original comic can be found in the sequel's opening titles, which take direct inspiration from Cully Hamner's artwork.

What Happened to the Red TV Series at NBC?

In August 2015, Deadline reported that NBC was developing a television series based on the movies, with the screenwriters behind both feature-length adaptations, brothers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber.

The philosophy behind the small screen adaptation, Deadline wrote, was to "retain the core concept of the films but will be set in a more grounded and authentic world, focusing on the characters’ darkly hilarious struggles to survive civilian life as they simultaneously fight for and against the very organization that threw them out."

There have been no developments on the show since that time, though the Hoeber siblings have remained busy, penning movies like The Meg, My Spy, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, and Meg 2: The Trench.

Red and Red 2 are now streaming on Peacock.

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