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In Red, Helen Mirren wears an impeccable ivory gown and calmly blows away bad guys with a machine gun. Aaaand that’s basically the gist of Robert Schwentke’s adaptation of a Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner graphic novel—lots of high-profile actors ushering unspeakable destruction with giant weapons and great aplomb. It’s ridiculous, it’s throwaway, and it’s terrific fun.
Red begins with the dull, Cleveland, Ohio, routine of Frank (Bruce Willis), a retired CIA agent. Frank likes pretending his pension check hasn’t shown up so he can call up his Kansas City handler, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a game Midwestern flirt who likes the sound of his voice, too, and gets her kicks reading pulp fiction. (“It’s terrible,” she says of her latest, Love’s Savage Secret. “I love it.”) Frank then reads what she reads, and one day mentions he’s going to be coming to Kansas City, hinting that maybe they should meet.
That date gets moved up when Frank finds a cadre of assassins in his kitchen in the middle of the night. And so he does what any ex-black-ops agent would do: Blows them—and much of his house—to dust, with some more fancy shootin’ downtown (who knew you could suavely step out of a spinning car and then hit your mark?). Then he essentially kidnaps Sarah, repeatedly telling her she’s in danger as he restrains her and duct-tapes her mouth shut when she doesn’t believe him. (Really, it’s funny.)
Obviously, Frank has to find out how and why his identity has been compromised. And obviously, he has to gather his old—emphasis on “old”—team. This includes Joe (Morgan Freeman), an 80-year-old who can’t believe he’s living in a retirement home, Victoria (Mirren), a lady’s lady who happens to take assassin jobs on the side because she “just can’t stop,” and Marvin (John Malkovich), an expert in surveillance and paranoia who (sometimes rightfully) thinks everyone is out to get him. The villains? William Cooper (Star Trek’s Karl Urban) and his boss (Rebecca Pidgeon), who themselves are CIA.
There’s more to the story, which screenwriters Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber expanded (with Ellis and Hamner’s blessing) from the 66-page source work. But we’re not talking Pulp Fiction-engaging plotlines here: All you need to know is that there’s Good and there’s Evil, even if the good side murders and blasts holes the size of double-decker buses into buildings. There are giant fireballs and, this being born of a comic, bodies that blow up graphically yet cartoonishly.
Yet Schwentke (The Time-Traveler’s Wife, Flightplan) keeps the tone playful and the laughs frequent, many of them courtesy of Malkovich’s goofy psychopath and the unconventional getting-to-know-you dynamic between Willis and Parker’s crushing couple. (The better parts redeem a group scene regrettably set to Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle.”) Even Ernest Borgnine and Brian Cox show up, the latter as a Russian ne’er-do-well who wistfully tells Frank, “I haven’t killed anyone in years!” Essentially, Red is what The Expendables could have been—a collection of stars ostensibly past their action-flick prime, kicking ass and bringing laughs while they do it.