This geriatric spy caper provides a showcase for a gray ensemble that’s obviously enjoying themselves, but they’re having more fun than we are. Robert Schwentke’s adaptation of the DC graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner has an old-fashioned, laid-back attitude that suits the story of a bunch of retired special ops who rejoin forces to squelch a nefarious plot that threatens them all. But while its casually genial attitude makes it easy to take, the picture ambles when it should sprint. Even when it’s a comedy about oldsters, a lackadaisical action movie is something of a contradiction in terms.
The plot kicks in when recently retired superspy Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), whose boredom is relieved only by his telephone conversations with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker)—the girl who cuts his pension checks in Kansas City—is attacked by a small army of murderous commandos led by young CIA hunk Cooper (Karl Urban). After a quick trip to pick up Sarah, whom he (rightly) suspects will be a target because of her long-distance friendship with him, he recruits some old colleagues to help him break into the agency headquarters and find out what’s going on. There’s Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who’s dying of cancer in a retirement home but still has a twinkle in his eye; Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), a loony recluse with a love of firearms; and Victoria (Helen Mirren), an elegant dame with the skill of a sharpshooter. Frank will also be aided by an old foe, Russian Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox), who has a lot of past history with one member of the team in particular, and Harry, the keeper of the most secret secrets kept in the innermost recesses of Langley. He’s played by Ernest Borgnine, a still ambulatory nonagenarian.
The convolutions of the plot are either predictable or ludicrous. One thread focuses on the connection that gradually builds between smooth, confident Frank and the ditzy Sarah, who’s initially resistant to getting involved but quickly becomes as proficient as if she’d been in the business for years. Another concerns Cooper’s hot pursuit of the heroes. And the third is the MacGuffin, a long-ago military mission in Latin America that has something to do with powerful weapons mogul Alexander Dunning (Richard Dreyfuss) and a high member of the US administration.
The result is rather a mishmash that situates a highly unlikely romance (or actually two of them, as things turn out) within a sub-Ian Fleming farrago of double-crosses, hair’s- breadth escapes and dastardly doings and winds up in an intricately-planned confrontation at a political event in Chicago. Unfortunately, the plotting is far from clever (the entire Guatemala backstory is banal), the dialogue lacks sharpness (even in the exchanges between Frank and Sarah), and the action scenes are either limply staged or overly nasty, given the surroundings (the fight that occurs at one point between Willis and Urban, for example, is too violent by half). And the picture both looks and sounds a mite cheesy (for which cinematographer Florian Ballhaus and composer Christophe Beck are partially to blame).
Despite all that, the cast keep the movie afloat. Predictably, Willis goes through it with a smirk perpetually in place, but Mirren is engagingly by-the-book and Freeman pleasantly avuncular. Even better are Malkovich, who revels in the zaniness of his role (when he’s out of sight for long stretches, things sag), and Cox, who plays a big Russian bear with brio. Urban is okay in a straight action role, and Parker gives Sarah a goofy fizz. Only Dreyfuss seems to be unable to add some humor to his badly-written part
Watching “Red” might make you recall “Hopscotch,” the 1980 Walter Matthau movie about an old CIA operative keeping one step ahead of the agency’s forces, who are trying to stop him from publishing his embarrassing memoirs. It had far less firepower—no bombs, fistfights or gun battles, and absolutely no special effects. But though as implausible as this picture, it had an abundance what the new movie needs more of: wit and charm. “Red” isn’t unpleasant to sit through, but with this cast it should have been much more than it is.