In “RED,” oldness is of the essence. Apparently it is a movie about patronizing the elderly. RED stands for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous,” and refers both to the film’s accumulation of hoary gestures and to its protagonists, a once-elite team of aged and variously cuddly trained killers who together endure betrayal, conspiracy, brutality and infirmity.
Of course the film knows it’s saddled with cliches. But the knowingness itself seems old. A comedy, it hopes, “RED” derives from Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s graphic novel for DC Comics, and there is oldness even in its ostensibly adolescent fixations — the soundtrack rawk throb and stunty slo-mo set pieces, the squall of semiautomatic weapons and semiautomatic performances. Maybe this is what happens when a generation weaned on comics and Bruce Willis flicks starts closing in on middle age, without ever really having grown up. Wow, what an old-person thing to say.
Willis’ Frank wakes at 6, out of habit, to another day of stale suburban retirement. To make the best of it, he flirts by phone with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the audibly foxy, cubicle-bound administrator of his pension. Then a team of hitmen shows up from nowhere and shoots the ever-loving shit out of Frank’s house. It’s him they’re aiming for, obviously, but one virtue of Extreme Dangerousness is that it can serve as home security and life insurance simultaneously. Frank throws a few bullets in a frying pan and presto: hitmen mincemeat.
Whoever they were, it’s safe to assume they’d bugged his calls. “They know I like you,” he says to Sarah, sheepishly, upon kidnapping her for her own protection. This is good. This means they’ll be able to see each other in person now, and develop their relationship at least enough for her to tell him, “You can’t just go duct-taping people.” Can’t he, though?
They’ll also have to address the matter of somebody wanting Frank dead, which means flitting around the country and gathering up his old team. In case you missed it, that’s old as in from the past and as in not young. Enter Joe (Morgan Freeman), a gracious rascal; Marvin (John Malkovich), a paranoid acid-casualty crackpot; Victoria (Helen Mirren), the real reason you wanted to see this movie in the first place, if you have any taste at all; and Ivan (Brian Cox), a Russian Cold Warrior who once took three bullets for Victoria. From her, in fact.
They have what you might call seniority. Together, and with Sarah tagging along, they trace the matter of somebody wanting Frank dead to a limply Dick Cheneyan Richard Dreyfuss and a web of government skullduggery. Old story. At the CIA, they get help from a records clerk played by Ernest Borgnine (old!) and resistance from a comparatively young buck played by Karl Urban, with whom Willis exchanges abundant gunfire, extravagant fisticuffs and combative dialogue:
“Kordeski trained you?”
“I trained Kordeski.”
By now, regrettably, the movie has all but abandoned the wily and adorably coy Parker, who, at 46, seems almost scandalously young in the given company. Hers is the right spirit for enlivening dumb fun like this, but the film keeps too busy playing by rote to nurture it. And so, leaving unexamined such themes as the will to kill and the will to live, its antiquation continues apace. The more “RED” winks at the audience, the more the wink starts to seem like a geriatric essential tremor. It’s hard not to wrinkle your nose at the dense and dusty perfume of its atmosphere. It’s hard to stay polite when repeatedly offered a sampling from its bowl of fossilized hard candy.
The machine-gunning Mirren is as classy as ever, of course — partly for the insouciance with which she mocks her own more serious work, and partly for just seeming not to give a damn if she’s been patronized. Willis has a knack for that same offhand stance, but he’s less, well, British about it. For him, it’s an industry. And it’s not getting any younger.
The screenwriters are Jon and Erich Hoeber, who before this also adapted the graphic novel “Whiteout” and after this adapted the board game “Battleship.” The director is Robert Schwentke, who before this made “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” The draw is Mirren, who after this moves on to Shakespeare. Isn’t the movie business weird? Was it better in the old days?