The Gray Team: Corliss on Red

Bruce Willis leads a gang of old spies — make that old stars — in the fun yet overly familiar Red

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Frank Masi / Summit Entertainment

Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren in Red

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) feels as old as Methuselah. A lonely retiree, he gets his only human contact by phoning — pestering, really — a pension administrator named Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker). He might almost be Homer Simpson's elderly father Abe, who once said he sends money to telemarketing scammers because at least they remember to call him. But Frank has muscle as well as melancholy: when a cadre of hit men break into his home, he effortlessly dispatches them. He's a former CIA operative, and to stay alive he'll need all his killer skills plus a few of his trusted ex-colleagues, all code RED: retired, extremely dangerous.

If you're in clandestine government work, apparently, you can be put out to pasture. But if you're a movie star, you're never pasture-prime. The old stars keep on twinkling; the marquee lure of these valued assets dims but doesn't die. Recently, Hollywood seems so intent on convening veteran performers to blow stuff up — witness this summer's The Expendables — that the subgenre has been given a name: the geriaction picture. These films aren't sequels; they're creakquels. Not The A-Team but the Gray Team. When 65-year-old Harrison Ford lumbered through the last Indiana Jones film, moviegoers applauded his efforts as if he were a fine bottle of Old Grand-Dad. Same with the Over the Hill Gang in Red. The stars lift some heavy artillery, and you're just pleased they can still get it up.

In this enjoyable if low-aiming comedy-thriller, Willis, 55, is joined in the spy game by Morgan Freeman, 73; John Malkovich, 56; Helen Mirren, 65; Brian Cox, 64; Richard Dreyfuss, 62; and (granted, a ringer) Ernest Borgnine, 93. In this crowd, Parker, 46, is practically jailbait. Her Sarah is also the audience surrogate: kidnapped by Willis because his phone calls may have made her a target as well, she must register surprise, anger and then an amused indulgence as the alter kockers race cross-country to figure out why they've been fingered, locate their pursuers and foil a dastardly plot that stretches back to Latin America in 1981 and up, dare we say, to the White House.

Jon and Erich Hoeber's ambition-free script (based on the graphic novel written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Cully Hamner) seems pleased with its own familiarity, as if Red were some jolly caper made in the wake of the first James Bond craze. Everything is retro-generic, from Christophe Beck's 007-ish score to the cheerfully anarchic notion that ex-police types, if they feel threatened, can overturn a half-dozen American cities to make their getaway. But genuine ingenuity would defeat the purpose set out by director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler's Wife), which is to create a gently churning bath, a cinematic Jacuzzi, that his cast can have fun splashing around in.

White Gown and Machine Gun
The spectacle is one of stars on holiday — some slipping into less taxing versions of their earlier, weightier characters, others just on a frolic. Malkovich, as a loopy agent whose every paranoid fantasy is proved true, reprises his Burn After Reading role of a cashiered spy but kicks things up a notch into comedy. Dame Helen, who won an Oscar and an Emmy playing both Queen Elizabeths, is no less regal as an ex-spy and society doyenne who is not fully retired ("I still take the odd contract"). This stint is about as demanding as Mirren's recent game of beer pong on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Still, she certainly looks sexy in an elegant white gown and its essential accessory, a loaded machine gun.

A more thoughtful film might have investigated the chasm between the dreams older people have of reliving their youthful exploits and the exhausting reality of all that running, killing and flirting. But since this is not a movie about defining true-life heroes but rather about watching movie stars, the audience is instead asked to be impressed by the blinding whiteness of Dreyfuss's teeth and Borgnine's ability to look nearly as spry at 93 as he did in The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch, back when he was a colt in his 50s.

Early on, Frank tells Sarah he hopes she'll look back on her kidnapping "as the great big adventure that it is." Red isn't great or big or much of an adventure; it's a movie designed with no loftier intention than to fill the hours on a long plane ride, and it need not be put on anyone's bucket list. Best to think of the film as Hollywood's latest contribution to the stimulus program: it provides gainful employment for some very pleasing stars and modest enjoyment for the rest of us.