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This ain't no Shakespeare.   Helen Mirren and John Malkovich kicking ass in Red.

Dame Helen, in the parking garage, with a machine gun.  Is this perhaps some perverse game of Clue, updated for the Grand Theft Auto generation?   No, it's just one of the slightly guilty pleasures of the poorly-named but frequently entertaining Red, full of a surprisingly ballistic group of un-expendables.       

Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, one of the story's RED's.   Not commies, mind you.  No, quite the contrary.  He's a former black-ops CIA agent, classified by his former employers as "Retired: Extremely Dangerous."   Frank is trying to lead the placid life of a retiree in Cleveland.   At one point, when he steps out of his house and regards the suburban sameness about him, one expects the sort of contempt we see from Ray Liotta's Henry Hill in Goodfellas, mired in the witness protection program.   But no, Frank looks around him at the bland subdivision bedecked in Christmas decorations.   Cut to a shot of the front of Frank's house, complete with Christmas lights and blinking, plastic snowman.   He's trying.  

But his life is a little too placid for Frank, so he's taken to tearing up his pension checks so he can call a customer service agent, Sarah (the ever-delightful Mary Louise Parker), with whom he's developed a phone flirtation.  Sarah is clearly as bored and lonely as Frank, and happily indulges in long conversations with him, to the chagrin of her supervisor.   She tells Frank about the wonderfully awful romance novel that she's reading, "Love's Savage Secret," which we see him subequently reading.  Just as the Milan fashion show in Love's Savage Secret is interrupted by all manner of chaos, so too does all hell break loose upon Frank's retirement.  Assassins show up and attack Frank at his home, eventually firing enough bullets to compromise the structure.   It should go without saying that Frank walks away from the attack unscathed.   And apparently everyone in his neighborhood is out of town on vacation, as not a soul stirs after the shooting stops.   Red doesn't require a suspension of disbelief so much as it requires one to send one's disbelief off to a concession stand in another dimension for a couple of hours.   But that's sort of the point.

Frank and Sarah had agreed to meet up in Kansas City, but the new plot against Frank accelerates their dating timetable.   Poor Sarah returns from a dispiriting blind date with another man - "You live with your parents...I think that's just awesome," she mutters after closing her door on the sap - to find Frank in her house.   Despite Frank's attempt to explain their predicament, Sarah justifiably freaks out, forcing Frank to shanghai her just before more assassins arrive.   The two head for New Orleans, where Frank enlists the help of one of his old cohorts, Joe (Morgan Freeman).   Unfortunately, the romance begins with Sarah's mouth duct taped for much of their first 24 hours together.  If nothing else, Red seems determined to affirm the enduring value of duct tape in our high tech. world.   It comes in handy more than once. 

The script by Jon and Erich Hoeber gives all these old (and not so old) pros just enough room to do their thing.  Willis is wry.  Mirren is the very proper assassin, tending to flowers while keeping what looks like a grenade launcher close at hand.  Morgan Freeman is, well...Morgan Freeman.   Malkovich is a paranoid former CIA agent, subjected to way too many LSD trips while a government agent.   There have been few funnier sights on film this year than Mr. Malkovich, adorned in a tuxedo, with a bomb and children's clock for a timer wrapped around his midsection, running after some bad guys while screaming like a madman,  looking a cross between James Bond and Flavor Flav.  

As for Ms.Parker's Sarah, she awakens just as the New York skyline comes into view.  After nearly getting herself killed during an escape attempt in New Orleans, before she has warmed to the world's longest and most dangerous first date, she says to Frank.   "I was hoping not to get kidnapped...or drugged.  I was hoping you would have hair.  So, it looks like none of our dreams are comin' true."  But Sarah she does warm to Frank and all the bullet-dodging exploits, eventually gushing, "This is just like Love's Savage Secret!"  Well, yes.

Frank's reponse to Sarah's outburst (and playful dig at Willis' shaved head) is a low-key, "Sorry about that."  Willis, as he did so well in the Lethal Weapon films and even The Fifth Element, brings an appealingly human dimension to all the outsized action around him.  

Bring the noise!   John Malkovich in Red.  

Willis and the cast are certainly the main draw.  Take away novelty of the long-time action star leading this thoroughly respectable bunch through a shoot-em-up fantasy camp, and you're left with a very average action film.  But, fortunately, Dame Helen looks surprisingly at home behind a sniper's rife or that aforementioned machine gun; Mary Louise Parker, as she's often called upon to do in her television series, Weeds, traipses gracefully through an incredible storyline with equal parts mordant humor and raw nerves ; and John Malkovich adds another shade of crazy to his already impressive palette of lunacy.   Demented is a configuration into which the actor's face seems to arrange itself with increasing ease as he gets older.   Frankly, he plays the loveable (or not so loveable, as was the case in In The Line of Fire) lunatic much more credibly than certain of his character roles, when he struggles with some dubious accent or other, as was the case in Rounders, or the recent Secretariat (so one hears).   

Malkovich and Morgan Freeman, enjoying a much more interesting wardrobe than star Bruce Willis.

Lest we feel conflicted about any developing affection for these former CIA (or MI5, in the case of Mirren's Victoria) operatives - hired killers, after all - the villains in Red are even more disagreeable.    There's a rogue defense contractor (an appropriately reptilian Richard Dreyfuss) and an evil vice president, trying to cover up a dirty past.   Sound like anyone we know?   No, the answer is not Joe Biden.  

It's the careerist V.P., trying to cover up a less-than-kosher Guatemalan mission from years past that starts the plot to kill Frank Moses and others who were there.  Ultimately, Frank's seasoned crew decide that they have to take out the vice president.  So, we get the image of Ms. Mirren, in a white ball gown, firing a machine gun at the limo containing unctuous ne're-do-well.   It's fun.   It's sort of Kick Ass for adults.   It also begs the question:  Helen, where were you when we needed you?     



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