Silver Screen: Red ***

Silver Screen: Red  ***
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Silver Screen: Red ***
Bryan Miller

The tagline for the senior-citizen-friendly action-comedy Red is not, but probably should be, "I'm not getting too old for this." It's not as if the film, directed by Robert Schwentke and written by brothers Jon and Erich Hoeber, is averse to post-kill quips, and certainly not to pandering to its target audience of moviegoers who gets a $2 discount at the ticket booth.

Despite its unseemly demographic kowtowing and eagerness to please, though, Red is still an enjoyable trifle, thanks mostly to a stacked cast who normally wouldn't have "costar in shoot 'em up" on their respective bucket lists.

Retired CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is bored and lonely in his immaculately kept suburban Cleveland home. The only significant contact he has is a long-distance flirtation with the sweet-voiced customer-service rep (the almost fatally adorable Mary-Louise Parker) at his government pension office. A bureaucratic decision far up the chain results in Frank being slated for termination under the condition that he's RED (Retired Extremely Dangerous) and knows something someone doesn't want anyone to know anymore. His chats with his long-distance crush Sarah have put her on the firing line, too, so after he handily dispatches his would-be killers, he scoops her up and hits the road, enlisting a slew of former colleagues to help him break into CIA headquarters and find out who wants him dead, and why.

The who and the why turn out to be pretty immaterial. What does matter is the calibre of Frank's deadly cohorts: There's Joe (Morgan Freeman), a cancer patient who hasn't lost the will to kill; Marvin (John Malkovich), the rightfully paranoid subject of a decade-long government mind-control experiment; Ivan (Brian Cox), Frank's former Cold War foe and Russian counterpart; and graceful assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren).

Red is based on the short, punchy comic-book miniseries of the same name by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, but it bears little resemblance to the source material. Ellis and Hamner's Frank was a loner without a telephone siren or a killer crew; nothing about him was lonesome, much less "gooey on the inside," as Mirren's character later describes the character in the film version. The movie is much sillier, and both its road-movie premise and getting-the-band-back-together shenanigans are invented whole cloth.

That's for the best, if it means more John Malkovich, who's hilarious as the addled but often right-on Marvin. Malkovich isn't necessarily the first name you think of when you think "comedy," but some of his best films of late have been in the genre (Burn After Reading, Art School Confidential), and his timing here is absolutely perfect.

Cox takes an over-the-top cliché that went out of style with the U.S.S.R. and makes it work, somehow. And even if there's too little Freeman and Mirren, they're both delightful, especially the latter wearing a flowing white evening dress while blowing up SUVs with a massive automatic weapon. Willis is fine, and still a more credible action star than some of his counterparts, but here he's just facilitating his elders and keeping up with Parker, who looks as youthful as Dakota Fanning with this crew. Star Trek's new Bones, Karl Urban, does a fine job as the naï ve CIA operative who thinks Frank's murder is justifiable, but he's even more lost in the shuffle than Willis, not because his performance isn't solid, but simply because he isn't Malkovich or Cox or Mirren.

Are these great actors wasted in something as frivolous as Red? Maybe, but they certainly look like they're having fun.