Since Hollywood defines growing old as little more than bucket lists and complicated romance, it's a kick to see a few creaksters going down with a fight. • RED is an average shoot-'em-up except for the wrinkled fingers pulling triggers. • It's a film neatly summarized by its publicity image of Helen Mirren, at 65 the classiest dame in movies, squeezing off rounds with an automatic weapon: Queen Elizabeth with a bad attitude, as if the AARP issued licenses to kill.
Too bad that Mirren doesn't arrive until nearly an hour into RED. She's the punch line for a joke taking too long to set up. Until then it's a standard Bruce Willis action flick, with all the smirks and bullets that entails, and a cross-generational romantic comedy with occasional chances for Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich to show they aren't too old for this stuff.
Willis plays Frank Moses, a former CIA agent with RED (Retired Extremely Dangerous) stamped all over his file. Frank spends his days puttering around the house and tearing up pension checks, so he can flirt over the telephone with file clerk Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) about a replacement. Frank doesn't need the money but can use the personal connection.
Things get hairy (not for Willis, who ditches the toupee this time) when a team of assassins invades Frank's suburban home. Proving he hasn't lost his edge, Frank battles his way to escape, wondering who wants him dead and worried that Sarah is endangered by association. He kidnaps her for her own good and embarks on a road trip to round up his former CIA partners, who may also be on the hit list.
Joe Matheson (Freeman) is settled into a retirement home but wouldn't mind one last adventure. Marvin Boggs (Malkovich) is a survivalist unhinged by years of LSD testing for the agency. They speak with nervous respect for the fourth member of the crew, Victoria (Mirren), creating a scary impression contradicted by the prim, urbane woman we find. That is, until she literally goes ballistic.
Director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) keeps his visual style close to its graphic-novel origins, with shots framed like hand-drawn panels and a general feeling that anything can happen. RED never lacks vitality but always seems to find a way to delay what we know is coming next: not quite tension but not dull, either. Willis and Parker share a nice Moonlighting-style chemistry that gets drowned out by gunfire just when it's getting good.
What sets RED apart is its defiant stand against Hollywood's belief that heroes must be as young as the audience it seeks to attract. The movie wears its shawl proudly, with even Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfuss popping in for career therapy. It's an amusing geriatric uprising that might just as well be titled Gray.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.