Chief among the pleasures of Red, a sleek, giant-scale action picture populated by formidable actors, is the sight of Helen Mirren, elegantly dressed in a form-fitting white dress, firing away on a gigantic machine gun that makes a noise as loud as thunder, her expression a combination of concentration and conviction. Woe to him who foolishly stands within her crosshairs. Her target in that scene? The Vice President of the United States.
Red, which has been adapted with style and wit by director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, The Time Traveler's Wife) from the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, excels at bringing on the high-power pyrotechnics. There's a terrific, tactile thrill in an early sequence in which Bruce Willis' home is sprayed by bullets from assassins' guns that are so powerful, they knock down the entire front wall of his house. As an orchestrator of shoot-'em-up mayhem, Schwentke is the anti-Michael Bay - he directs large, complicated setpieces in which you can always follow the action clearly and you always know where every character stands in relation to the others. He's helped considerably by the fact that his four leads - Willis, Mirren, John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman as former CIA black-ops agents forced out of retirement … are often the ones doing the shooting and trading quips between reloads.
The plot of Red, which was written by brothers Jon and Erich Hoeber, is a twisty, complicated thing in which the aging quartet - all deemed "red,'' or retired and extremely dangerous - reunites to uncover a conspiracy involving a series of executions, a cover-up in Guatemala dating back to 1982 and a reason to give Ernest Borgnine (alive and kicking, who knew?) an oppor tunity to grace movie screens again with his immensely likable presence.
Red is also a sort of romantic comedy about the meet-cute relationship between Willis and a romance-novel addict lonelyheart (Mary-Louise Parker) who is swept up against her will into his outlandish adventure. Malkovich, playing the king of all paranoid schizophrenics, has a grand time hamming it up as a conspiracy nut who can't stand being reminded of his age (in one of the movie's best scenes, an enemy assassin makes the big mistake of calling him "old man''). Freeman, lighter and funnier than usual, obviously relishes the opportunity to cut loose and not have to emanate maturity and wisdom.
Schwentke repeatedly puts his characters into cliffhanger scenarios from which there appears to be no possible escape - this could have been called Mission Impossible: The Golden Years, complete with a break-in at CIA headquarters in Langley - and the actors treat the material with all the gravity it deserves (none). Eventually, Red eventually starts to overstay its welcome, and the movie's plot is resolved in a disappointingly mundane scene that is the textbook definition of anti-climactic. This is also the sort of film in which characters get shot and just brush off the injury as if it were a mosquito bite. But compared to such generic, flashy duds as Knight and Day or The Expendables, Red goes down like a flute of fine champagne. Here's how it's done, youngsters.
Cast: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Mary-Louise Parker, Karl Urban, Brian Cox, Rebecca Pidgeon, Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine.
Director: Robert Schwentke.
Screenwriters: Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber.
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mark Varhadian.
A Summit Entertainment release. Running time: 111 minutes. Vulgar language, prevalent violence, occasional gore. Opens Friday Oct. 15 at area theaters.