There’s a touch of smirking apathy to everything Bruce Willis does these days, an attitude that reads as “I’ve already won the Hollywood game, but I guess I can keep playing for everyone else’s sake.” It can be a winningly intimate feeling that we’re all just hanging out with the actor himself, like old buddies. It can also be tremendously frustrating: In Red, he barely bothers to change his facial expression or vocal inflection, whether his character is talking about his tender crush on his pension caseworker, Mary-Louise Parker, or killing a room full of cannon-fodder assassins. Why bother to hire a star who doesn’t show up?
Adapting a Warren Ellis-penned comic series, director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, The Time-Traveler’s Wife) brings the same sort of casualness to Red. When a heavily armed kill team attempts to take out laid-back retired CIA black-ops specialist Willis, he kidnaps the terrified Parker to keep her from becoming a target, and seeks out the elderly associates of his spy-adventures heyday, including Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Brian Cox as a former Russian adversary. While they attempt to puzzle out the conspiracy that led to the kill order, current CIA agent Karl Urban, doing his best ice-faced Terminator impression, tries to track Willis down and finish the job. Many shootouts result, but between action setpieces, the characters engage in the languid, pause-filled conversations of retirees with no commitments or deadlines in sight. This gives the film’s first half-hour a charming, ambling feel, but becomes increasingly awkward as Red continually veers between high energy and low. There’s a restrained cool in pretending that these characters are so capable that they never feel pressure or break a sweat, but if they aren’t challenged, what’s the point?
Part of it is cheap thrills, of course; this is a capable, experienced cast with extensive acting chops, and it’s trashy fun watching them descend to the level of the material, which has Mirren in a sleek ball gown, capably letting rip with a 50-caliber machine gun, and Malkovich toting around a giant, squeaky stuffed pig. Red is often enjoyable when it’s just observing its cast going through the action-movie motions, but Schwentke never decides whether he’s making this movie for relaxed seniors or hyper, misanthropic, amoral teens.