If you're like me, you'll put up with a lot of malarkey in a movie just to see Helen Mirren wielding a semiautomatic weapon. You may argue that Helen Mirren wielding a semiautomatic weapon is also malarkey. Maybe so, but malarkey doesn't get any better.
Mirren is one of several overqualified actors who are featured in the graphic-novel-derived, comic action escapade "RED," and she doesn't appear until well into the movie. Until then, we have to satisfy ourselves with a motley crew of oddball luminaries, including Bruce Willis, over-underacting as former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses, and John Malkovich, under-overacting as ex-CIA loon Marvin Boggs.
Retired Frank has been living a gratifyingly boring and solitary life in the burbs when his home is inexplicably invaded by a high-tech hit squad, which he methodically dispatches. Up until this point he's been periodically amusing himself flirting on the phone with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the administrator of his pension checks.
On the pretext of a business trip, he arranges a blind date with her. In the wake of the attack, fearing she may also be implicated, Frank converts the date into a kidnapping. Sarah complains, but not too convincingly. Frank, is, after all, more exciting than the losers she's been hooking up with.
Besides Frank, several other top CIA agents, all retired, are also being targeted by, as is soon revealed, their former employer. (The film's title is an acronym for "retired, extremely dangerous.") Joe (Morgan Freeman), terminally ill but still game, is living in a nursing home; Malkovich's Marvin, the unwitting recipient of long-ago LSD experiments conducted by the CIA, stows himself in a camouflaged bunker; Mirren's Victoria, looking like a cross between Martha Stewart and Margaret Thatcher, has a queenly decorum.
None are happy marking time. When the attacks begin, they swing into action with Frank, and they love every minute of it. We are encouraged to love every minute of it, too.
This wasn't quite the case with me. I liked every 20 minutes of it. Director Robert Schwentke never strikes a comfortable balance between comedy and action. That first home invasion, for example, is shot like a routine thriller sequence, but it's bookended by goofiness. His mistake was in trying to strike a balance in the first place.
In order for it to work at all, "RED" should not be taken seriously on any level. Whenever it touches on the real world – whenever it brings up torture and terrorism and assassination of US leaders – it loses its bearings.
It also suffers from being yet another movie, in the wake of "The A-Team" and "The Expendables," about an aging cadre of codgers facing off at the OK Corral. (Among the many films it pilfers from is "The Wild Bunch.") For years, Hollywood has been trying to figure out what to do with its superannuated action stars. The answer, it turns out, is simple: Cast aging action heroes as aging action heroes. (Now that Governor Schwarzenegger is about to step down, don't be surprised if he reenters the fray big-time.)
Another reason these films, which also include "Knight and Day," with Tom Cruise, are resurgent is that, with their comic-book frolics, they serve as antidotes to the grim "Bourne" movies and their ilk (like "Salt").
By not taking themselves too seriously, they provide an alternate-universe romper room that harks back to the comfy days of cold warriorism. "RED," in fact, features a Russian operative and former cold-war spy, Brian Cox's Ivan, who's as warm and fuzzy as a teddy bear.
"RED" is a poisoned valentine to the CIA, and that approach, too, is in keeping with its cold-war sentimentality. For most of the way, the film's chief CIA baddie, played by Karl Urban, is as sleek and soulless as his high-tech weaponry, but this just proves that the CIA isn't what it used to be when Frank and Joe lived high on the hog. "RED" is a goofball lament. It's saying that in the good old days, or at least in the good old movie days, our killers were good-time guys. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence and brief strong language.)
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