Retired, Extremely Dull  

Malkovich, Mirren, and Willis as former black-ops specialists in Red.

Sitting down to review Red (Summit Entertainment), a graphic-novel adaptation directed by Robert Schwentke ( The Time Traveler’s Wife), I felt a bit like the time-traveler’s wife myself. Hadn’t we just been here before, with Wanted, Watchmen, Kick-Ass? The punchy, tongue-in-cheek, hyperviolent action movie based on a cult comic is becoming its own mini-genre, and almost all of them leave me cold in the exact same way. ( Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was an exception; I didn’t love it without reservation, but found it more inventive and less sadistic than its peers.) Red tells the story of a group of aging black-ops specialists who come together to expose a government conspiracy. But the creakiest things about this movie aren’t Bruce Willis’ and Helen Mirren’s joints.

Frank Morris (Willis) is a retired operative living alone in a spotless suburban house. He’s so bored his main joy in life is chatting with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a phone rep at the government office that issues his pension. Frank has just cooked up an excuse to visit Sarah in Kansas City when his house is invaded by a team of masked assassins. * Frank escapes and flees to Kansas City, where he kidnaps Sarah for her own good, knowing that the killers will soon track them both down. (Between Knight & Day and this movie, abduction is emerging as the new courtship technique.)

Frank and Sarah travel the country rounding up a team of crack spies whose top-secret files reside under the heading “R.E.D.”—Retired, Extremely Dangerous. There’s Joe (Morgan Freeman), a nursing-home resident with some fight still left in him; loopy conspiracy theorist Marvin (John Malkovich); former Soviet double agent Ivan (Brian Cox); and unflappable MI6 veteran Victoria (Helen Mirren). These onetime colleagues join forces to figure out why their old employer is suddenly bent on their destruction, eventually uncovering a scandal involving the vice president (Julian McMahon) and a bottomlessly cynical defense contractor (Richard Dreyfuss).

Though the actors are all, in theory, welcome company, this ensemble never really gels. Bruce Willis seems competent but jaded: He could turn in a deadpan-tough-guy performance of this type with his hands zip-tied behind his back and his mouth duct-taped shut. Mary-Louise Parker, who essentially does work under those conditions, has some slyly funny moments, but the script (by brothers Jon and Erich Hoeber) has her character trusting in Willis too early. There’s no suspense, and hence no sexual spark, in the development of the Frank/Sarah love story. Malkovich’s acid-damaged conspiracy nut—whose fevered imaginings almost inevitably turn out to be on the mark—impresses as less comic than the actor seems to have intended. Something about Malkovich’s off-kilter line delivery and sour glare makes Marvin seem genuinely disturbed, and disturbing. And while Mirren looks smashing while wielding a gun in an evening gown or tearing around in high-fashion snow camouflage, her character doesn’t appear until a good hour into the movie, giving us very little time to know or care much about Victoria’s motivations.

I know terms like “caring” and “motivation” are probably quaint when discussing a movie of this type, but as long as we’re being asked to spend nearly two hours rooting for these people to be better shots than the people shooting at them, is it too much to ask for a reason we should take their side? Red simultaneously tries too hard and not hard enough: It keeps up a steady, frantic barrage of bullets, blood, and wisecracks, but never manages to convince us that anyone involved—characters, actors, filmmakers or audience—is having any fun.Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Correction, Oct. 19, 2010: This review originally stated that Sarah lived in Denver. (Return to the corrected sentence)