“Red” is an agreeable piffle, a fun action/comedy that’s silly without being moronic. When I found out it was about retired CIA agents being hunted down by their former agency, I immediately thought a better title would have been “Old Spies Like Us.”
“Red” actually stands for “Retired and Extremely Dangerous” — the designation given to characters played by Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren. They range in age from Willis’ Frank Moses, who’s probably in his mid-50s, to Freeman’s Joe Matheson, who’s 80 and dying of liver cancer to boot.
Freeman is aged up convincingly and looks a bit frail, but Willis is lean and sleek, and still appears capable of laying down some serious hurt. Why would the CIA forcibly retire someone seemingly still in his prime? The question is never asked or answered, but this is not the sort of movie to dally with logistics.
The film is based on a graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, though director Robert Schwentke and screenwriter siblings Jon and Erich Hoeber ditch the gritty tone for a light fun ‘n’ games feel. The comic book centered on Frank, but the movie adds new characters to make it an ensemble.
Malkovich plays Marvin Boggs, a wild ex-agent hiding out in the Florida swamps, whose paranoia about the government spying on him is tempered by the fact that he actually was secretly drugged with daily doses of LSD. Marvin has a nice bit where he squares off gunslinger-style with an opponent wielding a rocket launcher, and he shoots the missile out of the air.
Mirren is a delight as Victoria, a British retiree who breaks up her routine of gardening and cross-stitching with the occasional assassination contract. Mirren is kittenish and playful, and hell on wheels behind the eyesight of a large-caliber rifle.
Joe, meanwhile, fritters away his waning days in a New Orleans retirement home, ogling the nurses.
Frank lives in drab suburbia, putting up Christmas decorations simply because that’s what his neighbors do. He receives monthly pension checks from the government that he rips up so he can call the accounting department to complain that they never arrived. This allows him to speak with Sarah, a worker drone with dreams of an exciting life.
Frank is sweet on her and longs for a normal life — until a squad of black-ops types turn up at his home and try to kill him.
Sarah is played by Mary Louise-Parker in a turn so vibrant and likeable that it doesn’t occur to us that her character is completely unnecessary to the story. After being kidnapped by Frank — he figures if the government is gunning for him, they’ll target Sarah, too — she spends most of the movie literally standing around in the background while Frank, Victoria, Joe and Marvin ply their violent trade.
The plot is a twisting affair that you need not pay much attention to — something to do with some nasty business down in Guatemala long ago. It’s just an excuse to set up action scenes and humorous encounters.
Other figures in the mix include Richard Dreyfuss as a wicked arms dealer; Brian Cox as Frank’s old Russian adversary; and Karl Urban as a young CIA agent tasked with taking down Frank, and finds himself getting schooled.
“Red” reminded me a bit of “Sneakers,” a 1992 caper with Robert Redford about a bunch of washed-up, written-off spooks who get together for a new job. Both are well-made escapist entertainment, signifying nothing other than a good time.