“RED” arrives at an inopportune moment, coming as it does on the heels of so many other action comedies about rogue groups of trained killers banding together for a mission. This one is better than “The Losers,” “The A-Team,” and “The Expendables,” and the faults it does have aren’t attributable to genre ennui. But the story, from a graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, is a tired old formula, only barely enlivened by the dream-team cast.
Still, that cast! Oy gevalt, such a cast this is! Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, a retired CIA operative living in peace and solitude in suburban Cleveland. He has an ongoing telephone flirtation with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), who works in the office that handles government pensions. When Frank is suddenly targeted for assassination — apparently by his former employers — he and Sarah must go on the run, figure out what’s happening, stop the bad guys, and so forth.
For Frank, that means reconnecting with some of his fellow ex-spies. Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) is in a nursing home but still spry. Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) is a paranoid nutter who lives off the grid in the swamps of Florida and is certain the CIA still keeps an eye on him with satellites and helicopters. The elegant Victoria (Helen Mirren), former MI6, lives a life of quiet grace, but yearns for action. (She still does the occasional contract killing, just to stay sharp.) Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox), Frank’s Russian nemesis from the Cold War era, has the hookup on weapons and vodka. Rounding out the quorum of old-timers: Ernest Borgnine as the guardian of the CIA’s most secret files, and Richard Dreyfuss as an industrialist made rich by government contracts.
The current pop-cultural fondness for aged celebrities might work to “RED’s” advantage — what, no Betty White? — and there is a certain pure delight in seeing Helen Mirren wield a sniper rifle, for example. The movie gets by for a while on nothing more than exuberant overkill. Director Robert Schwentke (“Flightplan,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife”) favors smooth, stylized action over gritty, graphic violence, and he stages some cheerfully over-the-top scenarios. The screenplay, adapted by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (of last year’s “Whiteout”), is glib and breezy.
Everyone’s clearly having a blast. Willis and Parker’s snarky rapport is a hoot, never mind that their whole situation is just like Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz’s in “Knight and Day.” It’s always a pleasure to see John Malkovich play an insane person, a petulant weirdo who makes comical faces and doesn’t seem to care what the movie’s about. (Is Malkovich the next Walken?) Rebecca Pidgeon and Karl Urban are good as the square, possibly villainous CIA agents currently running the show.
But after a while the film becomes too much of a fun thing, the amusement-park ride that never ends. There are no levels, really: Once it works its way up to a certain volume — jaunty, one-dimensional, unserious mayhem — it stays there, forever. As it turns out, it’s not just the cast. Nearly everything about the movie is kind of old.
(Note of trivia: This is the second film called “Red” that Brian Cox has appeared in.)
B- (1 hr., 51 min.; )