Once seen, never forgotten, the experience of looking on as Helen Mirren lets loose with a machine gun is the equivalent of watching the queen of England lay waste to a crowd of unruly commoners. It's also the only aspect of "Red" that satisfies as it should.
RED is an acronym for "Retired Extremely Dangerous," a group of former CIA agents who have been sent out to pasture in favor of younger, presumably deadlier, government operatives. But a series of circumstances gets them back in the game and, guess what, they haven't so much as lost a step.
Conceived of as an action comedy with a tongue-in-cheek, Tarantino-lite sensibility, "Red" can't stop itself from trying too hard to be hip. It's not that it doesn't have effective moments, it's that it doesn't have as many as it thinks it does. The film's inescapable air of glib self-satisfaction is not only largely unearned, it's downright irritating.
Directed by Robert Schwentke and graced with a big-name cast including Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich, "Red" has a real weakness for pushing quirky right into the ground. As written by brothers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, whose self-congratulatory cleverness extends even to their press kit biographies, this is a film that's too pleased with itself for too little reason.
That tendency is visible even in "Red's" opening section, which introduces Frank Moses (Willis), a quiet man who spends his time staying in shape and engaging in a genteel phone flirtation with Sarah Ross ( Mary-Louise Parker), a government functionary in Kansas City who yearns for a more exciting life. Be careful what you wish for, Sarah, especially in a film like this.
When a black-clad assault team tries to kill Frank and he deals with them without breaking a sweat, we come to understand that this unassuming man is a formidable black-ops virtuoso whose government file is stamped "Ultra Top Secret" for a reason.
What Frank comes to understand is that people are trying to kill him. Fearing Sarah, who he has never met, is in danger too, he goes to Kansas City and kidnaps her, tying her up and covering her mouth with generous swaths of duct tape — an encounter she describes, in one of the film's better lines, as "not my best first date."
The Frank/Sarah relationship, which will surprise no one to learn improves considerably from these unpromising beginnings, is one of "Red's" real weaknesses. Not only is it utterly predictable, it's hampered by been-there done-that performances by both the laconic Willis and the wacky Parker as well as a sense that the whole business is an unconvincing contrivance from the word go.
Trying to figure out why all those men in black were trying to exterminate him, Frank and an increasingly intrigued Sarah flit around the country, making contact with Frank's old comrades in arms, all retired but not necessarily happy about it.
In New Orleans they meet up with Joe Matheson (an under-utilized Freeman), who is surprisingly lively for someone described as being 80 years old with stage 4 liver cancer.
Somewhere in the swamps of the South they come across Marvin Boggs (an over-eccentric Malkovich), a nutty paranoid whose mind was warped by way too many doses of government-administered LSD. Wait till the "tea party" hears about that.
Best of the bunch, as previously noted, is Mirren's Victoria, who runs a bed and breakfast in Virginia but admits that when bored "I take the odd contract on the side." While the other actors run hot and cold, Mirren is most at ease in her role, handling her lines with aplomb and firing automatic weapons like she means it.
Other fine performers wander through the film's ultra-complicated plot and numerous acts of comic-book-style mayhem, including Brian Cox, Rebecca Pidgeon, Richard Dreyfuss and even the venerable Ernest Borgnine as the CIA's ancient records keeper. Too violent to be a comedy, not funny enough to counterbalance all the violence, the problem with "Red" is not that it lacks puckish charm, it's that there is too little of it to go around.