The jokes occasionally fall flat and the action scenes rarely sizzle, but only a curmudgeon could entirely resist the laid-back charms of “Red,” an amusing, light-footed caper about a team of aging CIA veterans rudely forced out of retirement. Putting a comic spin on Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s more downbeat graphic novel, this goofy diversion gets by with a cast of pros who can steal a scene and wield semiautomatic weapons with seasoned aplomb. While a toplining Bruce Willis ensures some young viewer turnout, Summit release will fare best with older audiences in likely quick playoff and solid ancillary.
With a principal cast whose average age is about 63 (that’s not including 93-year-old Ernest Borgnine, who has a brief role as a basement-level CIA employee), “Red” reps an older, wiser variation on one of this year’s most popular action-movie subgenres; think of it as an AARP-friendly version of “The Losers,” “The A-Team” or “The Expendables,” which similarly pitted an elite team of professional assassins against a far more pernicious enemy.
But while the film boasts its fair share of explosions and smashed-up automobiles, it’s hardly another ’80s-style shoot-’em-up. A story about killers who are continually made aware of their own mortality, even as they seek to recapture the adrenaline-pumping excitement of their youth, “Red” manages to get at some of the basic frustrations of old age in an entirely sincere and good-humored manner, giving it a tone that, if not exactly elegiac, is more bittersweet than one usually expects from this sort of fare.
The first scene makes explicit the film’s concerns, as Frank Moses (Willis) places a phone call to report a missing retirement check; this turns out to be a mere excuse to speak with pension administrator Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), with whom he’s become smitten from afar. But when Frank expertly fends off a squad of hitmen who raid his house one evening, it’s clear he’s no ordinary lonely bachelor. Formerly a black-ops agent for the CIA, now deemed “retired and extremely dangerous” (the classification that gives the film its title), Frank must go back into action and find out who wants him dead.
With Sarah clearly in danger, Frank kidnaps her (something she submits to with minimal fuss, given the circumstances) and takes her on a whirlwind tour of the U.S., from New York to Mobile, Ala., to agency headquarters in Langley, Va. Significantly changed from the source material, Jon and Erich Hoeber’s screenplay lays out an internal CIA conspiracy whose particulars are neither surprising nor all that interesting; even as the plot thickens to include a Halliburton-style defense contractor (led by a Dick Cheney-channeling Richard Dreyfuss) and a long-ago secret mission in Guatemala, it never rises above the level of boilerplate.
Fortunately, as directed with low-key assurance by Robert Schwentke (“Flightplan,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife”), “Red” works primarily as an actors’ showcase, and it experiences an immediate spike in energy, humor and warmth once Frank’s former colleagues come out of the woodwork. These include old rascal Joe (Morgan Freeman), now holed up in a retirement home; paranoid crackpot Marvin (John Malkovich), whose craziest suspicions are invariably confirmed; elegant, sophisticated Victoria (Helen Mirren), an expert at concealing weapons under her floral arrangements; and Russian spy Ivan (Brian Cox), whose taste for vodka is matched only by his affection for Victoria.
It scarcely matters that these actors are never particularly believable as cold-blooded killers; part of the incongruous fun of Mirren’s performance, for example, stems from watching the actress ever so regally fire a machine gun, and Malkovich’s shenanigans are so amusingly over-the-top that the question of realism never enters the equation. Yet even as Schwentke drolly extracts laughs from his characters’ various quirks and murderous impulses, he takes quite seriously their mixed feelings about where their career sacrifices have left them at this late stage.
Once again making the issue of his own age central to the narrative (as he did so gamely in 2007’s “Live Free or Die Hard”), Willis heartily battles his way through numerous opponents — most impressively the young CIA hotshot on his tail (effectively played with a permanent scowl by Karl Urban) — while also conveying his inner romantic. As Frank’s civilian love interest, the appealing Parker manages to be memorable in an underwritten role by seeming no less loopy than the company she keeps.
Toronto and New Orleans stand in capably for the production’s many locations (signaled by picture-postcard graphics at each new destination). The decision to have the characters wear parkas in cold-weather cities is merely one of costume designer Susan Lyall’s inspired touches; Christophe Beck’s low-key score amusingly suggests that of a Bond movie on Prozac.