Director Robert Schwentke ought to be thankful for the offbeat, talented cast he scored for “Red,” his big-screen adaptation of the DC Comics graphic-novel series. Without the combustible mix of Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren, “Red” would’ve been just another disposable actioner on Hollywood’s production slate. But the deadpan, sometimes hilarious chemistry between Willis and his co-stars give this stylistically half-baked venture a likeable twist.

Retired black-ops operative Frank Moses (Willis) lives in self-imposed suburban exile till two unrelated events happen: He takes a fancy to Sarah (Parker), a service rep at his pension firm, and he’s attacked in the middle of the night by a team of assassins. After dispatching his attackers, Frank takes it on the lam, bringing Sarah along for the ride. Yearning for exotic adventure, Sarah doesn’t mind the abduction once she realizes that Frank used to be the CIA’s most lethal and effective agent. While Frank and Sarah investigate why they’re being targeted, they’ve got to keep one step ahead of the tenacious Agent William Cooper (Karl Urban, who deserves his own action vehicle judging from his steely-eyed presence here).

One by one, Frank rounds up his veteran team of cohorts – Joe (Freeman), Marvin (Malkovich) and Victoria (Mirren). In between extended, generally unremarkable action sequences, they discover that the CIA – under orders from a Presidential hopeful (McMahon) and a defense contractor (Dreyfuss) – is eliminating anyone with knowledge of a covert Central American massacre perpetrated decades ago. Frank and company are, of course, tops on their list.

The actors bring their individual, trademark strengths to the material, and their dynamic together is where “Red” gets all its mileage. Willis’ wry, stone-cold self-assurance pairs with Parker’s high-strung, neurotic charm for a blend that’s comically pleasing, even pleasant by action-movie standards. The same holds true for Morgan’s sage charisma mixing with Malkovich’s antics as a paranoid lunatic and Mirren’s icy British elegance.

This motley cast is clearly having fun as members riff off each other, especially after Brian Cox gets in on the act in a somewhat farcical turn as a seasoned KGB operative. Urban, meanwhile, gives Cooper a deadly, laser-guided hyper-competence. The cast’s efforts go about halfway to compensating for “Red’s” lack of inspiration elsewhere. Schwentke aims for a John Woo-esque celebration of clever staging and stylish action, but we’re miles from “Hard Boiled” or “A Better Tomorrow” as sequences frequently have a falsely anarchic, been-there-done-that staleness about them (one in which Frank slides out of a spinning car, firing bullets without missing a beat is a brief exception). Given its lauded comic-book pedigree, one might expect the energy and confidence behind “Red” to be a class apart. But as it builds to its good guys vs. bad guys climax, the movie’s generic sensibilities hobbles the promise offered by a spirited cast.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Written by: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfuss, Julian McMahon


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