Film Review: Red

Retired CIA agents get dragged back into harness, and the is truth is that they couldn’t be happier in this good-natured action movie spiced up with a dash each of comedy and romance.

Retirement and former CIA black-ops superstar Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) just aren’t getting along: He’s bored, restless and so lonely he’s reduced to making up reasons to flirty-phone Kansas City-based pension administrator Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker). Behind her perky façade, the much-younger Sarah is lonely too, and sufficiently disillusioned with the local dating pool to agree to meet Frank in person, even though she’s afraid a face-to-face will ruin a perfectly good fantasy relationship.

So naturally, the night before Frank is set to leave for Kansas City, a hit squad tries to kill him. The casualties include six mercenaries, Frank’s modest ranch house, several Christmas-themed lawn decorations and whatever plans Frank had for his first date with Sarah—he instead sneaks into her house and kidnaps her, hoping to keep her out of harm’s way until he can figure out who’s behind the assassination attempt and, um, resolve their differences through level-headed discussion and grown-up compromises.

Okay, that last bit isn’t true: Frank gets together the old gang and prepares to kick some ass. The old gang consists of Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who breezed through decades worth of covert skullduggery only to wind up with fourth-stage liver cancer in a New Orleans rest home; elegant assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren), who never let her job get in the way of a little hanky-panky; and Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), a nut job and living proof that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. All are classified “Retired: Extremely Dangerous” by their former employer, hence the title.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Frank’s predicament has something to do with a murdered New York Times reporter, a fiercely ambitious Company man (Carl Urban) and his icy boss (Rebecca Pigeon), war crimes in 1980s Guatemala, smug arms dealer Alexander Dunning (Richard Dreyfuss) and ambitious Vice President Robert Stanton (Julian McMahon), though working out precisely who did what to whom and why takes up the rest of the running time. Along the way to a blood-spattered happy ending, Victoria is reunited with onetime lover Ivan Simonov (Brian Cox), the Soviet spy she was ordered to kill—“It’s complicated,” says Victoria in her most clipped British tone (Who would dare press her for details?)—and Sarah discovers that being kidnapped, shot at, tied up, drugged, interrogated and threatened by amoral spooks beats the hell out of answering phones on a cubicle farm.

Based on a graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, Red is nothing more or less than adrenaline-fueled escapism finished with an ingratiating grace note of self-awareness. Red is no sillier than, say, Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables, but it’s a whole lot juicier because it gives the, shall we say, mature cast the opportunity to whale the bejeesus out of whippersnappers half their age, in part by playing on youthful misconceptions about their elders. Would the elegantly gowned and polished Victoria be able to snow that restricted-area guard long enough to lay him out with a well-placed jab from her steel-reinforced clutch so easily if she were played by, say, Angelina Jolie? Probably not: Moses and company may not be as spry as they used to be, but they’ve got hard-won experience up the wazoo, and know how to bluff, wheedle and MacGyver themselves out of situations the superficially jaded young ’uns don’t even know are situations. Go, grey tigers!