In dire need of the type of whipcrack verve Edgar Wright brought to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Red instead exhibits all the get-up-and-go of a grandpa on the verge of an afternoon nap. Robert Schwentke’s film, about a group of “retired and extremely dangerous” (i.e., RED) C.I.A. agents unexpectedly called back into duty after they’re almost assassinated, is predicated on the contrast of older men and women partaking in a macho action-cinema game. Yet, by not properly establishing its stars’ supposedly creaky infirmity at the outset, and then by not making their subsequent guns-a-blazin’ shenanigans truly outrageous, this tepid tagline of a movie gets absolutely nothing right about its own premise.
Based on a DC Comics miniseries, the story commences with Frank (Bruce Willis) trying to enjoy his post-professional life in quiet Cleveland suburbia, adorning his yard with Christmas decorations to better fit in with the neighbors, and routinely calling phone operator Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) about his government pension checks. Theirs is a budding long-distance romance, and one thrown for a loop after a hit squad tries to kill Frank, which compels him to visit Sarah in Kansas City and kidnap her for her own protection, a scenario that allows Sarah to live out her fantasy-novel dream of accompanying a super-spy on some espionage derring-do.
One of Red‘s numerous missteps is not positioning the early going from Sarah’s perspective, which blunts any potential humor generated by her astonished, wide-eyed reactions to Frank’s extraordinary skills. Then again, the sloppily conceived Sarah so quickly becomes comfortable in her new 007 surroundings that even thinking of her as an actual human being becomes impossible. Such confusion doesn’t plague the rest of the main players, however, since Frank and the retired cohorts he eventually recruits to help investigate the attempt on his life—paranoid loon Marvin (John Malkovich), randy cancer victim Joe (Morgan Freeman), and elegant Victoria (Helen Mirren)—are all limp cartoons. Schwentke assumes that the sight of such Actors wielding weapons is a joke that’ll keep on giving. Thus, Marvin’s fear of surveillance is outweighed by his marksmanship, Victoria acts refined while, for example, courteously explaining to Sarah that “I kill people, dear,” and Frank intermittently frets over his romantic life when not performing video game feats like stepping out of a moving car to gun down a pursuing federal agent (Karl Urban). Yet fogies with firearms aren’t hilarious by definition, and to his discredit, Schwentke does nothing to enliven his sole gag; where snappy banter and kinetic aesthetics might have compensated for the plot’s triteness, the director merely slows his material down to a narcoleptic crawl.
What Frank and company’s inquiry unearths is a conspiracy involving the United States Vice President (Julian McMahon), who’s trying to cover up some naughty Guatemala business that he and a villainous power broker (Richard Dreyfuss) hired the Reds to do years earlier. It’s a sub-A-Team storyline, as dim and derivative as the notion that Frank is really a good-guy black ops agent who, as Victoria claims, is hard on the outside but “gooey” on the inside. Engaging with any hinted-at geopolitical concerns, of course, makes as much sense as arguing about algebra with an omelet, but there’s almost nothing else to ponder during this drearily torpid saga, which plods along with a self-satisfied smirk that’s downright aggressive.
Wrongly convinced that Helen Mirren using a turret gun, John Malkovich acting kooky, or Ernest Borgnine making a cameo passes for inspiration, the film alternates between third-rate combat sequences designed to cover up the athletically challenged nature of its leads, and talky plot-forwarding bits characterized by indolent repartee. All the while, dialogue repeatedly includes wistful and/or defiant pronouncements about getting old, but Red has nothing to say on the matter of aging and obsolescence, except insofar as its own action-comedy is so sleepy and corny as to render itself worthless.