Let’s be perfectly honest here: the main reason to see RED is to watch Helen Mirren unload a .50 caliber machine gun at the bad guys. This she does quite well, along with flourishing various other forms of hardware that confirm her awesomeness beyond the shadow of all possible doubt. If ten minutes of such material can satisfy you, then RED definitely constitutes a must-see.
As for the rest of the film? It really should be better than it is. It wants to be, it tries to be, and at times it comes very, very close to being the movie it promises in the previews. Somewhere along the line, it loses the ephemeral quality required to make that work.
The cool parts start with co-star Bruce Willis, who lives a seemingly dull life in an ordinary neighborhood. He shuffles around his house like a sleepwalker, tearing up his Social Security check just so he can talk to the nice lady (Mary-Louise Parker) on the other end of the help line. Then one evening, a bunch of guys in black ops gear show up and try to kill him. He dispatches them with the cool detachment of the Terminator on Quaaludes, then sets out to rescue that nice lady on the phone from the same group of killers. Turns out, Bruce once served as the CIA’s best hitman, along with a trio of fellow agents now enjoying a semi-forced retirement. With their lives in danger, they must reunite--taking Parker’s mousy romantic with them--and put the righteous harm on whoever wants them out of the way.
The tone suggests a light, breezy actioner akin to the Roger Moore James Bond films, only with old people in the leads instead of younger, svelter models. Their ranks include Mirren, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich: all of whom get into the spirit of things nicely while Willis and Parker bicker amiably as the ostensible romantic leads. Director Robert Schwentke clearly aims the film at an older audience: people who remember the Cold War with curious fondness and who would love to see a gang of old farts show the kids how it’s done.
From time to time, RED scores a direct hit on that front, combining a good sense of action with a wistful sadness that speaks of long-past mistakes. Mirren proves the strongest player, particularly in scenes with a former foe (Brian Cox) who still carries a torch for her. They exhibit a sweetness to each other and a knowing wisdom about the world that carries the film past more than a few dodgy spots. Willis, too, settles into his role like a comfortable pair of slippers and reminds us why we still pay to watch him… even in sub-par material.
And therein lies the rub. For while RED succeeds in elevating itself from time to time, it simply can’t sustain the proper tone for more than a few minutes. We vacillate mercilessly between good elements and bad, never allowing the film to find its proper footing. At times, Schwentke aims for over-the-top farce, granting his heroes super-human prescience and accuracy. Other times, he injects semi-verite into the mix, trying to sell us on the “reality” of the proceedings. One or the other would work fine. Combining them both proves fatal, their disparate elements clashing with each other and smothering the film’s soul in the process.
You can sense something better fighting its way to the surface, and the hope for that carries RED past its shakier elements. The central notion demands some really first-rate material which the script delivers about every third scene or so. In those moments, the over-the-hill spies concept becomes delightful fun, with our chosen guides smiling gleefully at us all the while. But between them, we’re marking time: relying solely on the stars’ presence and the relative novelty of the concept to carry the day. I spent the whole movie hoping it would. The disappointment at its comparative failure stings worse than a bad movie might, because RED really had the chops to go the distance. Somewhere along the line, it wandered off the path and despite its Herculean efforts, never quite got back to where it started. Too bad. Too, too bad…