Critics often gripe about the blink-and-you’ve-missed-it frenzy of action sequences in today’s Hollywood thrillers.
The spy caper “Red” admirably rejects the trend, slowing things down to a digestible pace appropriate for vintage-bordering-on-geriatric heroes Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren.
Yet despite the impressive cast, which includes Mary-Louise Parker, Richard Dreyfuss and Ernest Borgnine, this latest adaptation of a hip graphic novel fails to fill in the spaces between the action with anything terribly interesting.
Director Robert Schwentke (“Flightplan,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife”) aims for a mix of action and comedy but never quite delivers on either.
The action is OK, though nothing you haven’t seen done better a hundred times before. Some of the gunplay becomes interminable, the filmmakers turning buildings and vehicles into Swiss cheese as characters fire off endless rounds of ammo.
The laughs are slight and sporadic, sibling screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber unable to generate enough clever interplay among the story’s band of ex-CIA operatives targeted for elimination. It’s a huge missed opportunity, given Willis’ cool-under-fire comic charms and the brilliant co-stars off whom he could have been bouncing better wisecracks.
Willis’ Frank Moses is a former black-ops maestro put out to pasture, living quietly in retirement when a hit squad shows up at his suburban house to snuff him out.
Escaping his assailants, Frank reasons whoever’s behind the plot will go after the people he cares about, so he rushes off to protect Sarah (Parker), a federal pension-benefits worker he’s been awkwardly courting by phone.
With her gift for playing wily and ditzy at the same time, Parker is the best thing about “Red” as her wide-eyed, innocent Sarah — longing to escape her office cubicle and have some adventures — becomes Frank’s gung-ho confederate on a zigzagging trek around the country.
Frank gradually reassembles his old team, including wry nursing-home denizen Joe (Freeman), trigger-happy conspiracy theorist Marvin (Malkovich) and classy but deadly Victoria (Mirren).
Together, they go up against an ace CIA hitman (Karl Urban, who brings surprising warmth to an underwritten role); his hardhearted agency handler (a badly miscast Rebecca Pidgeon, who’s about as menacing as, well, a pigeon); and a ruthless corporate profiteer (Dreyfuss, and who knows what he was thinking when he signed on to play this snarling, unpleasant, thoroughly uninteresting creep).
The 93-year-old Borgnine has a couple of pleasant moments as a CIA archivist, as does Brian Cox as an old Cold War rival of Frank and his team. Julian McMahon is suitably sniveling as the opportunistic vice president.
Simply by showing up, Freeman and Mirren bring grace and spirit that their thinly developed characters don’t really possess. As the mad dog of the bunch, Malkovich is supposed to be the funny one, but he acts the part of the paranoiac too somberly, his rabid anger a bit too real to draw consistent laughs.
Willis does a decent variation on his “Die Hard” act, playing a supremely capable hand in gunfights or car chases but a gawky schoolboy when it comes to romantic relations.
Still, there’s just not enough “Yippee-ki-yay” to “Red.” The heroes may be retirees, but that doesn’t mean they can’t go about the spy game with a little more youthful abandon.