Based on a comic by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, Red taps into the rogue-agent theme already encountered in The Losers, Knight and Day, Salt, The A-Team and The Expendables. This middle-aged version is the more amiably silly of the lot, with a belly-buster of a cast who give the so-so material maximum spin.
Bruce Willis plays retired agent Frank Moses, living in self-imposed lockdown in Cleveland and carrying on a long-distance phone flirtation with pension clerk Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).
When Frank escapes an assassination attempt, he knows his past is coming back to haunt him. He hits the road to abduct a not entirely unwilling Sarah, before assembling his old spy team (classified as Retired: Extremely Dangerous, providing the acronym that gives the film its title).
First he locates ailing Joe (Morgan Freeman), who is living in a New Orleans nursing home and feeling bored. Next is Marvin (John Malkovich), a paranoid acid casualty living in an underground bunker in Florida. Then there's Ivan (Brian Cox), a Russian spy who knows important secrets, including how to break into CIA headquarters.
Last on the list is Ivan's old paramour, Victoria (Helen Mirren), who enjoys baking, flower-arranging and the occasional contract assassination. A CIA agent (Karl Urban) and his boss (Rebecca Pidgeon) are involved in a Haliburton-style coverup led by Richard Dreyfuss channelling Dick Cheney. But the conspiracy plot is little more than narrative chewing gum.
The star turns are Red's raison d'être, with the winking performances filling the place of any credible dramatic tension. A cameo from Ernest Borgnine, 93, as an agency record keeper provides a handy measuring stick for the cast's age: There's old in years, and then there's old in eras.
THE STAR-BY-STAR BREAKDOWN
Bruce Willis (55 years old) From his opening to his final smirk, Willis recycles much of what worked in 2007's Live Free or Die Hard. The cocky but self-deprecating star makes fun of his own aging, while showing some romantic dash. The gap between Willis and mid-forties Parker isn't unseemly, just a little underdeveloped. And you wish he was up against a less buttoned-down villain to lend his role some useful yippee-ki-yay.
Morgan Freeman (73) As big a star as Willis in his way, Freeman plays a randy oldster who has nothing left to lose and is ready for a last shot at glory. It's a credit to Freeman's skills that he can retain his dignity while dressed up in a ridiculous Third World dictator outfit, looking not unlike Michael Jackson on one of his more conspicuous days. Though he brings some gravitas to anything just by showing up, this is essentially another payday.
Helen Mirren (65) Lady-like Victoria shows up late in the film as the conclusion to a running joke about the scariest agent of them all. She's an urbane doyenne in a chic white dress who offers a convincing impression of the Queen operating a machine gun - which may be the movie's biggest visual payoff.
John Malkovich (56) A casualty of CIA mind-control experiments, he's a wild-eyed conspiracy nut whose paranoia often proves prophetic. The loony outfits, off-beat delivery and maniacal eye-rolling liven things up, but in aiming for uproarious, he gets a bit wearisome. The movie he's performing in feels a lot broader than the deadpan spoof in which the rest of the cast are acting.
- Directed by Robert Schwentke
- Written by Jon and Erich Hoeber
- Starring: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich