Theres no doubt that RED is fun. The problem is that it should have been much more fun. A romp with a band of aging black ops agents who whoop the collectives tushys of the kiddies who inherited the CIA and other assorted agencies is a potent boomers daydream. Certainly the premise, a scintillating mix of conspiracy theories and the boredom of retirement, is afire with possibilities. Certainly the cast is flawless. Helen Mirren as the elegant, semi-retired assassin who finds it hard to go cold turkey from the killing game. Bruce Willis, lethal smirk intact, as the bored retired CIA agent with a crush on his retirement benefits representative, the romance-novel addicted Sarah (Mary Louise-Parker). John Malkovich as his former colleague, the one addled with paranoia about satellites, cell phones, and helicopters, not all of it unfounded. Morgan Freeman as the soft-spoken, worldly wise Morgan Freeman of the group. And certainly the dialogue delivered by these pros and their co-stars is a finely refined bit of dry wit delivered with the proper sangfroid.
Someone is out to kill them all and it might just be the CIA thats behind it, or maybe something more sinister. Frank (Willis), sensing that the long, regular conversations hes been having with Sarah about his pension checks going astray might put her in harms way, does the noble thing. He shows up unannounced at her apartment halfway across the country in Kansas City, packs her bag while shes out on a bad first date, and then kidnaps her to New Orleans. Not for the food, drink, or jazz, but for a strategy session with his mentor, Joe (Freeman). From there its a hop, skip, and a jump to Marvin (Malkovich) and his survivalist man-cave somewhere in the swamps of Florida, and a further hop, skip, and jump to the beautifully appointed mansion where Victoria (Mirren) lives, because she, too, is in danger and because shes a crack shot.
Based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, its not meant to be taken seriously. Hence an agent on the phone to his wife fretting over why his son is acting out while dad takes care of a termination with extreme prejudice. The writing takes the right tone, doing an homage to the spy flicks of the 60s and their convoluted playground of plots, while also bringing in an ironic tone that gives a light touch to the carnage. And here, finally, is where the fun bogs down a bit. The direction is a ponderous thing that weighs down the arch tone into something that dips perilously close to ponderous. No quick cuts for which the action sequences cry out, just graphics with maps and postcards that might be nostalgic, but are certainly not slick.
Fortunately, little can suppress Mirren in a white evening gown dancing a romantic two-step with the retired Russian agent (Brian Cox) whose dream it is to seduce her and kill the president, not necessarily in that order. Ditto for Malkovich who finds a common ground with Marvins a homicidal bent and his acute sense of decorum. Parker is all low-key, but wide-eyed wonder as she goes from kidnap victim to finding a new world of excitement outside her office cubicle, declaring with a perfectly straight face and tone of desperate seriousness than being drugged, kidnapped, and almost killed was not the worst first date of her life. Karl Urban is charismatic without trying as the square-jawed, coolly efficient CIA agent in charge of tracking down these troublesome seniors and then learning valuable life lessons instead of taking them out. Just for fun, theres Ernest Borgnine as the keeper of the super secret CIA files in a vault that officially doesnt exist, and Richard Dreyfuss as a blustery arms dealer with more power than he ought to have.
RED, it stands for Retired Extremely Dangerous, the designation for Frank and company, stands up to its pacing woes and, like its heroes, barely breaks a sweat dealing with that complication. Helen Mirren in evening wear and combat boots blazing away at the bad guys and looking like the epitome of sophistication while she’s doing it. What else do you need to know?