The action comedy RED (2010) features one of the most textbook examples of the Information Provider reel librarian character type. It’s a cheeky, action-packed film, with funny, committed performances by all the leads, including Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Mirren. They all play RED agents, which stands for “Retired but Extremely Dangerous.” Someone has been a hit out on Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), so he teams up with his fellow retired agents to get revenge — and romance along the way with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).
About a half-hour or so into RED (2010), Frank and Sarah follow up a lead in New York from a reporter who had been killed. When they question the reporter’s mother, they come across an odd number written on back of a postcard:
The next scene cuts to Frank and Sarah outside frosted glass doors that read “Downtown NYC Campus Branch” library. (By the way, no such library. The film credits list the Toronto Reference Library as the location for the library scene; the director most likely was playing off the NYU name.)
Sarah: Why are we here again?
Frank: Because those number on Stephanie Chang’s postcard are actually the call number for a book.
Sarah: Call numbers start with letters.
Frank: In Library of Congress, yeah. In Harvard-Yenching, it’s a classification for Asian literature.
Sarah: How could you possibly know that?
Frank: [Starts speaking Mandarin]
They use that call number — which points to a book in the Christianity section, by the way, because you know I looked that up! — to find a book, inside of which they find clues to a hit list. Which leads to the next plot point as well as the next RED character… libraries and reel librarians really are so useful to propel plots forward. :)
NOTE: By the way, the Harvard-Yenching classification system was begun in the late 1920s to catalog Chinese-language materials in the Harvard-Yenching Institute. The Library of Congress (LC) system was not capable at the time of classifying those kinds of materials, so other libraries around the world followed suit by using the Harvard-Yenching system to catalog their own Asian-language collections. Through the 1970s and 1980s, however, the LC system added extensive subject headings for Asian and other languages and literatures, and most U.S. libraries now classify Asian-language materials under the LC system. You can read more about the Harvard-Yenching classification system here and more about the Harvard-Yenching Library here.
I was impressed by Frank’s knowledge of call number systems, but the reel librarian fun doesn’t stop there!
In the next scene, which takes place at CIA Headquarters, a director gives a file number to agent William Cooper (Karl Urban) to look up info about Frank Moses. “That’s a file number. You need to visit the back room. You’re going to meet the Records Keeper.”
William Cooper’s reaction to the “back room” is an incredulous, “I didn’t even know this place existed.”
The records keeper (Ernest Borgnine), wearing a cozy grey sweater and a scowl on his face, turns and replies, “It doesn’t.”
The back room of records is a room full of metal file cabinets, although the entrance looks like a bank vault.
The records keeper pulls out a large file labeled RED, its contents heavily blacked out with marker. The Records Keeper then fulfills his Information Provider role, providing exposition about what “RED” means to both the young agent as well as to the audience.
William Cooper: You gotta be kidding me.
Records Keeper: Frank Moses was one of the most effective black op agents we’ve ever had. … He was truly gifted.
William Cooper: Why was he retired?
Records Keeper: He got old. Some thumbsucker came along and tagged him “RED”
William Cooper: Red?
Records Keeper: RED. R-E-D. Retired: Extremely Dangerous.
Records Keeper: Yeah. They don’t make them like that anymore.
Contrast the spare look and feel of the CIA archives and records room, as seen above, with the files of another RED agent Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), who is the next stop for Frank and Sarah.
Just a litttttttle bit different than the CIA files, eh? ;)
Almost halfway into the film, Frank Moses goes back to break into the CIA, with help from the Russian spies. We find out more info about the “back room” from Frank, as he reveals the records room is in the lowest basement level. He also reveals the record keeper’s name, which is Henry.
Henry’s reaction to Frank is very different from how he greeted the younger agent:
Henry: Mr. Moses. [shakes his hand] It’s been a long time.
Frank: I’m going to need to see that Guatemala file.
Henry: Guatemala? Uh huh. I think I can help you.
Henry: You know, it’s been a whole new world around here since you left. Guatemala.
Frank: You know you’re gonna catch hell for this.
Henry: After what I’ve seen? [They both laugh.]
Henry then proceeds to warn Frank about the young CIA agent out looking for him. A true Information Provider to the end, and Frank thanks him warmly.
Although Henry makes no more appearances in the film, and does not get mentioned by name again, there is one final mention of the “back room” in the film.
Toward the end, agent William Cooper captures and interrogates Sarah, and he throws down the Guatemala file down on the desk. We get a closeup of its stamp, which reads “Archives copy.”
William: Frank left this for me. Where did he get it from?
Sarah: The secure records depository of the CIA.
William seems surprised at this, but Sarah has a total poker face as she reveals the truth. Perhaps Henry will “catch hell for this,” but along with Frank, we wish this Class III reel librarian the best.
RIP, Ernest Borgnine, rest in peace.