Paying off its central gimmick, promised in the trailers, of classy, prestige picture actors like Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich firing machine guns and blowing shit up is just about the only thing that Red does particularly well. That’s not meant as any kind of a black mark, though, as it’s a pretty good gimmick, carried off in good humor, and without resorting to overly grim violence or hopped-up, empty style. Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, ex-secret agent (or something), now quietly living alone in the suburbs. After foiling a surprise attempt on his life, he hits the road with Mary-Louise Parker, a customer service rep for Willis’s government pension whom he a.) has a not-so-secret crush on and b.) has endangered with his frequent calls because the bad guys have his phone tapped. He and Parker stop in, one by one, on some of Willis’s old cohorts, namely Freeman as an aging pervert/badass living in a nursing home, Malkovich as a paranoid acid-casualty psycho, and of course Mirren as an icy professional killer. A great deal of time is spent by all figuring out just who is trying to kill them and why, but Karl Urban and Rebecca Pidgeon barely register as villains primarily because nobody cares who the bad guys are, as long as these classy thespians do enough damage along the way.
And they do. Red succeeds mostly because the not-infrequent action sequences are refreshingly well-staged, rarely resorting to quick cuts or intrusive slow-mo, settling instead on wide setups and long takes that provide a clarity rare for the genre. Whether this is simply director Robert Schwentke’s (Flightplan) style or a conscious choice made to appease slightly older viewers drawn in by the cast remains unknown, but after The A-Team and The Losers, it’s nice to see an action film that isn’t predicated on such useless, confusing tricks.
Red doesn’t have a lot on its plate beyond those action scenes, though; it’s plenty funny, but it does feel the need to goose the humor a bit too much. Frankly, the sight of John Malkovich chasing a guy down the street screaming and wearing a dynamite-stick vest is pretty hilarious on its own, but the goofy comedy music undercuts the subtle scary edge that image could also dig up. But then you get extended scenes of Mirren in a white evening gown just pouring bullets into the baddies with her MP5-K machine pistol. That kind of ironic lead-throwing mayhem doesn’t need any further commentary, and Red wisely refuses to provide any. Everyone performs admirably, of course. Willis eschews his usual wisecracking, preferring to play off of everybody else being busy trying to be funny. Parker is a bit of a fifth (or sixth or seventh) wheel, but she’s really just doing Nancy Botwin from Weeds anyhow, and she doesn’t get a ton of screen time. Brian Cox shows up midway through with a goofy Russian accent, but after everything else it’s just more icing. Long story short, you know right off the bat if Red is something you want to see. Measured expectations are the key, and the film handles those admirably.