What's a great Dame like Helen Mirren doing in a movie like "Red"?

Clearly, she's having a blast -- along with such equally esteemed thespians as John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman.

As co-star Bruce Willis undoubtedly told them, it's lots of fun to shoot rocket-propelled grenades and blow stuff up real good.

Whether you'll have a blast watching them have a blast, however, depends on your appetite for comic-book overkill.

Yes, "Red" is yet another in a seemingly endless line of comic book (pardon me, graphic novel) adaptations.

As such, it displays certain distinctive characteristics, including a hearty appetite for over-the-top action (the less credible the better) and a disinclination to bother with anything remotely resembling character development.

So, when the accent's on run-and-gun fun -- and pretty much nothing else -- the question is whether "Red" provides enough diversion to compensate for its innate emptiness.

Thanks to its all-aces cast, the answer's a definite ... almost.

With two Oscar-winners on the job -- four if you count supporting players Richard Dreyfuss and Ernest Borgnine (the latter still bringing it at 93) -- "Red" positively overflows with old pros who know how to get the job done.

That pretty much describes their on-screen roles as well -- especially because "Red's" title stands for "Retired, Extremely Dangerous."

Not that the comfortably retired Frank Moses (Willis) spends his days demonstrating his expertise in advanced espionage techniques.

A former black-ops CIA agent, Frank's big excitement is making bogus inquiries regarding his retirement checks to Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), the fetching customer service rep on the other end of the toll-free phone line.

That is, until a hit squad tries to take him out at home, prompting him to return to action and find out who wants him dead.

Whoever it is knows he's been talking with Sarah, so the first thing Frank does is kidnap her. For her own safety, naturally.

Next, they hit the road -- New York to New Orleans, Alabama to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. -- to unravel the mystery. (Not that it's much of a mystery, of course.)

And because Frank can't possibly handle the situation alone -- Sarah, after all, has no working knowledge of spy-vs.-spy technique -- he looks up a few former colleagues to assist him in his life-or-death quest.

Wily Joe (Freeman) is only too happy to leave the old-age home behind. Acid-(brain)washed Marvin (Malkovich) may be paranoid, but at least that means he's got plenty of artillery stashed around his house. These days, the ladylike Victoria (who else but Mirren?) prefers flower-arranging to firepower, but she's still a valiant, valuable addition to the AARP Team -- as is veteran Russian spymeister Ivan (Brian Cox), who (like Frank) misses the good old Cold War days when you knew your enemy.

And speaking of enemies, "Red's" usual suspects range from the implacable CIA agent on the team's trail ("Star Trek's" Karl Urban) to a shady tycoon (Dreyfuss, clearly reluctant to abandon his "W." role as Dick Cheney), with an unctuous politician ("Nip/Tuck's" Julian McMahon) and a CIA ice queen ("The Unit's" Rebecca Pidgeon) for good measure.

Screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber ("Whiteout"), working from the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, introduce a few clever touches -- most of them involving our heroes' ruefully reluctant acknowledgment that, despite their flair for advanced spyjinks, they're not immune to the ravages of time.

"Red" doesn't waste much time pondering such philosophical matters, however.

Director Robert Schwentke ("Flight Plan," "The Time Traveler's Wife") spends most of the movie trying to decide between high-octane action and more human, humorous elements.

Too bad he couldn't figure out a way to blend the two.

Instead, "Red" spends much of its time careening between its convoluted plot and its appealing players. They're a kick to watch, but rather than showcase them, "Red" keeps interrupting them for cartoony action sequences we've seen a zillion times before.

At least those action sequences leave enough room for the cast members to add a few engaging quirks to their generic characters, from Cox's gruff courtliness to Freeman's sly grace.

Willis dials down the snark -- a bit -- to suggest Frank's romantic yearnings, while Parker captures the goofy zest of an office drone unexpectedly delighted to find herself plunged into danger.

But it's Malkovich and Mirren who duke it out for the title of MVDD -- most valuable deadpan delight. Malkovich plunges into nutball-spy mode with antic enthusiasm, while Mirren ably contrasts her regal image with her character's no-nonsense grasp of intrigue.

It would be nice if "Red" gave them more to play (with) than lethal weaponry but, as the characters they play ably demonstrate, when you're a professional, you make things work.

They shouldn't have to work so hard, but they all do their best.

It's a lot better than "Red" deserves -- for which we should all be grateful.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.


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