Delivers age-old action tale
"RED’’ is the latest in the recent wave of geriatric actionfests trading on the novelty of old folks going medieval with guns, bombs, rocket launchers, you name it. Imagine! Retirees killing people instead of sitting on park benches and hanging out at the library! By such fresh ideas are the minds of red-blooded young moviegoers blown.
“The Expendables’’ trotted out the concept this summer, and it was good dumb fun — a nudge-nudge wink-wink ’80s movie on steroids. “RED’’ is more self-consciously wacky, more stridently in your face, and more disappointing. Oh, there are some laughs from the cast of pros: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren, all playing ex-CIA killers put out to pasture (they’re Retired and Extremely Dangerous; thus the title) and all of them coasting a bit too comfortably. What might have been a guilty-pleasure romp is hobbled by poor direction, sloppy pacing, and a story line that can’t decide whether it’s farce or a retread.
The comic on which the movie’s based was a simpler, less satiric animal that centered on the character of Frank Moses, a grizzled assassin who wants to know why his old colleagues are suddenly dying. Willis grabs the role like a career lifeline and he’s pretty good, establishing Frank’s macho bona fides as well as the character’s sizable tender streak.
His phone flirtation with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a drone at the US government’s pension office, is sweet and awkward, but when he scoops her up as his accomplice early in the action, “RED’’ announces that you won’t be having a logical night at the movies. Parker gives a dreadful, forced performance because her character makes no sense. Neither did Cameron Diaz’s role in the similar “Knight and Day,’’ but that moved along more smoothly, if with less risk.
“RED’’ is on firmer comic ground when Frank rounds up his vitamin-A Team: Freeman as Joe, the one-time chief operative reduced to ogling his nurse’s fanny at the old-age home, Malkovich as a paranoid wingding convinced the black helicopters are due any minute, and Mirren as a coolly elegant hit lady, formerly of British Intelligence. Chipping in support is Ivan (Brian Cox), a one-time Cold War opponent turned ally out of enforced boredom.
Who is killing the great assassins of America? There’s a plot and it’s a torturous one, involving a shady arms dealer (Richard Dreyfuss), a politico (Julian McMahon), a jaw-clenching CIA boss (Rebecca Pidgeon), and her underling, a junior op named Cooper who’s played sympathetically by Karl Urban. Frank teases Cooper about his “cute hair’’ and Cooper calls Frank “Grampa.’’ The dialogue doesn’t get much sharper than that.
The movie’s being sold on the image of Dame Helen Mirren wreaking havoc with a machine gun bigger than she is, a notion that’s less incongruous than it seems. Yes, the actress won her Oscar as Queen Elizabeth II, but she also won two Emmys as Superintendent Jane Tennison — hardly a shrinking violet — in “Prime Suspect,’’ and she previously played an assassin in the demented 2005 misfire “Shadowboxer.’’
In fact, the conceptual hilarity of “RED’’ only applies if you really can’t wrap your brain around someone of Mirren’s advanced age (65) or Willis’s (55!) playing action hero. The movie does bring on Ernest Borgnine for two scenes as a CIA crypt-keeper, but if only it had the guts to let the 93-year-old Oscar winner uncork a little whupass. “Whaddya wanna do tonight, Marty?’’ Ka-BOOM.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.