The retired government killers in RED still have the skills to pay the bills, but these days their pension checks cover most of the mortgage. They've also got a little extra paunch around the middle, and the same could be said about the movie they're in. Director Robert Schwentke's adaptation of Warren Ellis' D.C. comic suffers from some awkward pacing issues that stifle the flow of an otherwise fluid and stylish action comedy, making it feel longer than its actual running time and preventing the film from establishing a truly satisfying rhythm. Fortunately for movie fans, RED's best moments have a unique way of balancing out its minor shortcomings.
Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) used to be a hired gun for the CIA. Along with Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), and Victoria (Helen Mirren), Frank's specialty was carrying out contracts that the government didn't want the public to know about. These days, Frank and his old gang are all retired, but the powers that be are still concerned that they know too much, and dispatch a team of top assassins to ensure their silence. Desperate for a place to hide out, Frank flees to the apartment of Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), the bored, cubicle-dwelling phone jockey charged with ensuring that his pension checks arrive on time. While Frank and Sarah have developed a friendly phone rapport by exchanging notes on trashy romance novels, Sarah isn't too happy to find an unfamiliar face lurking in her darkened living room. With the bad guys closing in, Frank kidnaps Sarah and races to seek out the help of his old cohorts in killing. Now, Frank and his former team members realize that their only hope for survival is to break into CIA headquarters and expose the truth. But once they're in, the group uncovers evidence of a massive cover-up that promises to rock the very foundation of our government.
It's hardly a revelation that the cast of RED is one of the film's most appealing features. Not only do all the main players look like they're having a blast with the heavy artillery, but they share an onscreen camaraderie that makes watching them just as fun. The comic chemistry between Willis and Parker propels the action nicely early on, but once Malkovich comes bounding out of the brush, things really kick into high gear. "Unhinged" would be an appropriate adjective to describe his performance as an intensely paranoid assassin whose brain has been remapped by LSD, and his wild-eyed antics alone are nearly worth the cost of admission. Freeman is a wily combination of canny and loose, hitting all of his comic marks right on target, and the elegant Mirren looks positively radiant accessorized with an MP5. An unlikely romantic match for Mirren given his gruff demeanor, Brian Cox is strangely affective as an indispensable Russian ally, and Karl Urban shares the screen with these imposing veteran players with style and confidence. Incredibly, Richard Dreyfuss is almost more hammy here than he was in Piranha 3D, if that can be believed.
Director Schwentke displays a commendable flair for action, working well with cinematographer Florian Ballhaus (son of acclaimed DP Michael Ballhaus) to serve up high-energy sequences that don't sacrifice coherence for style. And while Schwentke's lively direction seems to grow a bit more pedestrian with each passing scene, RED still looks great, and moves at a brisk pace as veteran editor Thom Noble works overtime to smooth out some minor but noticeable pacing issues in the Hoeber brothers' clunky screenplay.
A playful action blockbuster with a top-shelf cast and a refreshingly unconventional concept, RED is a fast-moving action film that younger audiences will be drawn to because of its energy and graphic-novel roots and older audiences will enjoy for the cast and the script's playful subversion of geriatric stereotypes.