There are many things a diet of far too many movies have led me to believe about the world: Every romance that ends with a “happily ever after” begins with hate at first sight. No disaster is so disastrous that the dog will not survive. Explosions behind people may have the capacity to throw them dozens of feet but apparently generate no heat that will simultaneously burn them. The underdog always wins. And every trained killer is really, deep down, just a lonely guy in the midst of an existential crisis.
The angsty assassin — sometimes a government spook, sometimes a good old-fashioned hit man — is one of contemporary cinema’s favorite tropes, a function of our anti-heroic times. You could fill a film festival with titles dealing with that general theme, ranging from The Professional (Leon) to In Bruges, all the way up to this summer’s George Clooney drama The American. And while RED may find a way to make the premise a little more fun, the idea has gotten even longer in the tooth than some of its cast members.
This one comes by way of a graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner about a retired-and-extremely-dangerous covert operative named Frank Moses (Bruce Willis). Frank spends his tedious days in suburban Cleveland waking up before dawn, continuing his training, and flirting over the phone with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a customer agent in pension services. But the boredom comes to a rapid end when a team of gunmen descends on his home and blasts it to splinters. Something from Frank’s past has bubbled up to the surface and made him a target, and the only way of finding out what’s going on is by checking in on some of his former colleagues, many of whom may similarly be targeted for termination.
Those old friends (and enemies) include Joe (Morgan Freeman), a cancer-stricken rest home resident; Victoria (Helen Mirren), a British sniper; Ivan (Brian Cox), a Russian who was once one of Frank’s chief rivals back in the Cold War days; and Marvin (John Malkovich), a paranoid nutcase. The cast members all appear to be having a blast while getting a chance to play action heroes; Malkovich in particular is a hoot, even if it’s starting to feel like he could play this kind of irascible foil in his sleep. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that RED is cashing in on another cinematic cliché: Anything that you’d expect from a younger person (profanity, sex, using a gun) must become funnier or more entertaining when someone with wrinkles does it.
But the surface pleasures arising from that gimmick might have been more satisfying if they revolved around someone more compelling and less stereotypical. Willis plays Frank with the familiar hangdog expression that is his default “I’m unhappy” acting style, and nothing about his performance suggests that his interest in Sarah is inspired by anything more than, “Hey, it’s something to do.” It doesn’t help that the subplot that finds him dragging freaked-out civilian Sarah on his adventures is also fairly played out, although Parker gives an appealing twist on the bureaucrat who’s actually getting kind of a jolt out of being in mortal danger. It’s not a positive sign that the hard-case government guy (Karl Urban) assigned to take out Frank begins to feel like a far more interesting character for a movie to revolve around.
It’s not that RED doesn’t provide individually entertaining moments. Director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) keeps up a brisk pace, including several wild, giddy-making set pieces involving leaping from skidding cars or firing a bullet directly into the center of an oncoming shoulder-launched rocket. But satisfying performances and a few kicks of adrenaline aren’t quite enough to make me care if this particular gun-toting badass — as opposed to all the many others who came before him — can find inner peace.