As an adaptation of a graphic novel that doesn't feature superheroes, bland 20-something actors or an overarching mythology linking into other movies, Red is already a giant breath of fresh air from minute one. Taking on Warren Elis's slim novel and expanding it into a giant world of CIA agents marked "Retired: Extremely Dangerous," director Robert Schwentke is practically licking his chops behind the scenes as he puts Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox and Morgan Freeman together onscreen, hands them a bunch of dangerous weapons, and lets them go to town. It's irresistible for anyone who loves these actors-- which is everybody-- and there are many moments of Red that capitalize on that promise of gleeful, grown-up violence.
Unfortunately most of those moments are in the trailer, and a disappointing amount of Red limps along, failing to grapple with its own shifts in tone or to structure the action in a way that builds in any satisfying way. Humor beats are held a little too long, actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Malkovich are allowed to mug shamelessly, and with all these old pro actors jostling each other for screentime, you get the sense that the inmates are running the asylum. Schwentke has a good handle of action beats, and stages a spectacular fight scene and any number of great explosions, but he never feels totally in control of his movie, and Red starts to devolve into nonsense well before it takes advantage of the many things it has going for it.
As retired and lonely CIA agent Frank Moses, Willis is charming but basically on autopilot, fending off black-ops bad guys when they invade his house with a simple trick of bullets in a frying pan, then jetting off to Kansas City to pick up Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), the girl he's fallen for solely based on phone calls to her government department. From there it's a zany road trip across the country (told in clever postcard titles) as Frank realizes he's being targeted by the government for knowing too much, and his former CIA cohorts are all in danger too. After picking up Joe (Freeman) at the retirement home, Marvin (Malkovich) in his crazy underground bunker and Victoria (Mirren) in her stately home, the team regroups to fight back against the spooks who want them silenced.
Why do they want them silenced? It has something to do with the vice-president and overseas murders, though honestly, the plot is so irrelevant and incoherent I gave up following early on. All that really matters is that stern, slightly sadistic William Cooper (Karl Urban) is on their tail, and when he and his team catch up with them, hand-to-hand combat and explosions ensue. The fight scenes are far more fun than in other action comedies like The Losers or The A-Team, largely thanks to Malkovich's batshit, hilarious Marvin, but they fit into the film's structure so oddly that they don't add any energy to the rest of the languishing film.
It's worth noting that Ernest Borgnine fits into this mix somehow, and that Helen Mirren fires a machine gun with steely precision, and Morgan Freeman slaps Richard Dreyfuss in the face, and Bruce Willis describes Karl Urban's character as "cute hair"-- all funny, entertaining bits that keep Red going but also remind you of how much stronger a movie it could be. Though it's got far more of the right pieces in place than the plethora of other disappointing other action comedies this year, Red still doesn't quite have the juice, the skill or maybe even the nerve to make it sing.