Movies: Red * * *
(12A, General release)
Considering what comes later, Robert Schwentke's Red starts off at a cunningly pedestrian pace. We watch a middle-aged, single man called Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) get up, stretch, eat his breakfast and go through his post.
Then he makes a call to Kansas City to discuss a pension problem with a woman called Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). Though they've never actually met, Frank and Sarah have clearly been flirting on the phone for some time (he tears up his pension cheques and says they haven't arrived just so he can talk to her). However, their tentative long-distance relationship is about to get a lot more personal.
One night when Frank is unable to sleep and getting himself a glass of milk, a hi-tech hit squad sneaks into his house with the intention of killing him. But Frank hears them coming, and manages to turn the tables and wipe out an entire squad of them before making good his escape. Frank, you see, was a former black-ops CIA agent, and when he realises someone very powerful is out to kill him, he's forced to emerge from retirement.
Based on a cult DC Comics graphic novel, Red is a cartoonish action movie with a big sense of humour. That's never an easy trick to pull off, but overall this film does, thanks in part to a snappy script and mainly to the combined talents of a sparkling cast of older actors who ham it up with gusto.
Frank's first stop after leaving his blood-soaked home is Kansas City, where he kidnaps Sarah and drives her to Louisiana while trying to explain that her life is in danger because of her connection with him. And while Sarah is initially and understandably dubious about Frank's claim to be a retired spy, she soon realises he's telling her the truth.
In New Orleans, Frank learns from his old friend and colleague Joe (Morgan Freeman) that the hit on him was CIA-sanctioned. And as they dig deeper, they discover a link to the recent murder of an investigative journalist, and a special ops mission in central America in the early 80s.
Frank and Joe were involved in that mission, which went badly wrong, and so were their old friends Marvin (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Helen Mirren).
All, it seems, are now targets of a CIA hit squad led by an officious killer called Cooper (Karl Urban), and Frank and his buddies need to find out why before their enemies catch up with them.
You need a lot of charm to get away with this kind of nonsense, and Red has it in more than sufficient amounts. As Sarah, Mary-Louise Parker is handed some of the film's best lines and knows exactly what to do with them. When she first meets Frank, for instance, she diffuses a potentially awkward moment (he's just kidnapped her) by remarking "I was hoping you'd have hair".
Even more fun is Malkovich's Marvin, a deeply paranoid former agent whose obvious mental instability is apparently the result of a botched government LSD experiment. Marvin is both trigger happy and deeply touchy, a dangerous combination, and Malkovich really lets himself go here, to hilarious effect.
Freeman purrs his way through his turn as charismatically as ever, and Mirren is enjoyable as Victoria, a seemingly charming English lady who'll shoot you in the head first and ask questions later. Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfuss and Brian Cox all enter into the spirit of things in supporting roles, and much of Red's charm comes from watching all these old hands bouncing expertly off each other.
Perhaps the strain of keeping the joke going tells a bit towards the end, and Red doesn't quite have the coherence or sparkle to put it in the same league as classic action comedies such as Martin Brest's Midnight Run, but it's a lot more fun than most of the films I've seen this year, and is unlikely to ruin anyone's evening out.