There are many, many things wrong with "RED," the new comedic-action film loosely based on a DC graphic novel by Warren Ellis. The screenplay by Jon and Eric Hober is very weak. Robert Schwentke's direction is marginal at best. What "RED" does have in its favor is a spectacular cast, and if there were ever a time when the casting people for a film were responsible for saving the day, this is it. What got me into the theater was the promise of seeing Bruce Willis, John Malkovitch, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and Ernest Borgnine, who were all featured in the trailer brandishing oversized firearms, dropping one-liners, and looking like they were having a blast. Thanks to their performances, there are some fun moments in "RED," but overall the film is a disappointment.
Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, a CIA agent who isn't adjusting to his retirement in suburbia very well. One of his few joys is calling and chatting up Sarah Ross (Mary Louise Parker), a minor government employee in charge of sending out his pension checks. One night Frank is attacked by a team of assassins, and is forced to go on the run. He makes a brief detour to Washington DC first, in order to kidnap Sarah, knowing she'll be targeted by whoever is after him. Hot on Frank's heels is Agent William Cooper (Karl Urban), an ambitious young G-man who has been ordered to hunt him down by some shadowy superiors. Frank goes to his old friends and former black-ops team members for help, including Marvin Boggs (John Malkovitch), Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), and the lovely Victoria (Helen Mirren).
"RED" stands for "Retired, Extremely Dangerous," a designation stamped on Frank Moses' impressive file at the CIA. The movie makes good on its premise of giving us a chance to see all these celebrated, award-winning older actors kicking butts. Clearly, there's a limit to the kind of stunts that someone like Morgan Freeman or Helen Mirren can really pull off, but there are several good action sequences that milk the spectacle for all its worth. It's a delight to see Malkovitch facing down an RPG with a handgun and Mirren taking out secret service guards in an evening gown. Unfortunately, "RED" isn't successful at doing anything more with its cast, and considering the caliber of these actor's, it's an awful waste.
After Frank Moses hits the road, the story immediately begins to fall apart. Sarah goes from kidnap victim to giddy accomplice much too quickly. Marvin, who is established as a paranoid basket case, also seems awfully eager to leave his isolated bunker in the Everglades to come along for the ride. Morgan Freeman as Joe pops in and out of the film seemingly at random, and one wonders if the writers were having trouble deciding whether or not to keep his character in the script. His performance is utterly wasted, as are those of Richard Dreyfuss and James Remar, who show up in roles completely extraneous to the plot. The writing is terribly weak throughout, with labored plot twists, and dialogue in desperate need of a good polish.
This wouldn't be such an issue if "RED" was a pure action film like "The Expendables," but it's not. "RED" is much lighter fare that relies as much on its spy story narrative and comedic moments as it does on its action sequences. The real benefit of having these seasoned actors involved is their ability to salvage what they can of the lackluster script. The standout of the cast, to my surprise, turned out to be Mary Louise Parker as Sarah, who made an underwritten love interest character into someone lovable and sympathetic. Another was Brian Cox, playing a former Soviet rival of Frank's. Karl Urban in the thankless antagonist role was also far better than the material deserved.
In the end "RED" was a lot of fun, but it could have been so much more. It's impossible to see all that talent onscreen together and not wish that they could have had something more substantial to work with. "RED" may have been conceived as a farce, but that doesn't mean it couldn't have had more class and wit and intelligence. I'd love to see a sequel to "RED," just so everyone could get back together and give it another try. And maybe they can lock the writers in a room, and force them to watch the "Pink Panther" and Roger Moore era "James Bond" films a few times first.