Retired CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) now lives in suburban anonymity. Bored and lonely, Frank’s only joy are his regular phone conversions with an equally lovelorn pension centre worker Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), who dreams of adventure and excitement. When a CIA hit squad make an attempt on his life, Frank discovers he and Sarah have been targeted by the government. On the run from dogged CIA agent Frank Cooper (Karl Urban), Frank recruits a team of similarly R.E.D. (“Retired Extremely Dangerous”) former agents: cancer-ridden Joe (Morgan Freeman), über-paranoid Marvin (John Malkovich) and florist-cum-ace markswoman Victoria (Helen Mirren). Together they will need all their skills to crack this conspiracy and stay alive.
Boasting poster art liable to induce many viewers to do a double-take (“Is that Dame Helen Mirren wielding a machinegun?”) and based on a DC comic by the ever-subversive Warren Ellis, Red is something of an unexpected gem. Forever underrated, Bruce Willis’ wry, self-effacing sense of humour is very much to the fore but he proves equally adept at handling the surprisingly poignant layer of mature romance. From early phone flirtations to the ensuing road trip, the smart script shows Frank and Sarah complement each other rather well, with Mary-Louise Parker a winningly sassy, sexy and resourceful love interest rather than a simpering dame. In a charming gag, lifted from Romancing the Stone (1984), the unfolding adventure mirrors Sarah’s favourite romance novel and she can barely contain her glee.
At its core the film is a wry satire of society’s attitude to the aged, with the craggy characters still sharp-witted and deadly, but tragically unable to find something useful to do in their autumn years. It is a simplistic message but delivered with great panache and élan, alongside the pleasure in watching two veteran British thespians enact yet another romance. The inspired line-up of geriatric character actors turned unlikely action heroes do the whole over-the-hill-but-still-lethal thing with more grace and a lot more wit than the thematically similar The Expendables (2010). John Malkovich secures the film’s show-stopping moment when he shoots down a hand-held missile in mid-air. Aside from the top-billed players, the film makes room for the likes of James Remar as a former flying ace and hit list target, a sprightly Ernest Borgnine as the keeper of secret government files, Brian Cox as an avuncular Russian spy (“I haven’t killed anyone in years”, he laments), and Richard Dreyfuss as a smarmy arms dealer.
The supporting cast respond to the sharp script and the sick humour that is not too forced, with Karl Urban gamely essaying in essence the live action equivalent of Wile E. Coyote throughout the cartoonish action., but also injecting a welcome human touch as an unexpectedly devoted family man. Versatile German director Robert Schwentke imbues the action scenes with balletic grace. His quirky visuals keep things interesting even when the pace grows lackadaisical, although the intriguing plot springs a twist liable to please anyone who ever hated Dick Cheney.