This one could and probably should have been better. A sort of Grumpy Old Spies - the title's an acronym for Retired and Extremely Dangerous - RED is held back from achieving anything the altogether more sincere Sneakers or Space Cowboys managed by its relentless flipness of tone. From the opening shot of an alarm clock belonging to Bruce Willis's weary ex-agent Frank Moses ticking round to 6am to the mid-film shootout in a container yard, the material - adapted from a graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer - doesn't so much subvert cliches as present them with a mitigating smirk and a shrug of some already slackened shoulders.
A lot will depend on your feelings for the assembled performers, and whether or not you can bear to watch them in even screenfilling, in-flight nonsense such as this. Willis's low-key, unforced cool is enough to make one wish he'd push himself more often; John Malkovich doing wacko - even within the PG-13 straitjacket RED is obliged to wear - is always fun, to some degree; and I believe my thoughts regarding Mary-Louise Parker have long been a matter of public record, and quite possibly of some concern for the actress's legal team. (Again, though, I sensed the movies undervaluing her drollness; that she's too good for tagalong klutz roles like the one she's landed here.)
The casting of Helen "The Queen" Mirren as a dead-eyed assassin - letting out one of her now-trademark "bugger"s (cf. State of Play) whenever she gets shot at - is about the level RED is operating at, although among its thespian clutter, you'll also find amusing-ish one-or-two-scene bits for Ernest Borgnine as "The Recordskeeper", Brian Cox as a bibulous Russian contact, and Rebecca Pidgeon as a stiff CIA chief in the inevitable trenchcoat. It's an end-of-season Hollywood pantomime, in effect: everyone present is cruising along with the blithe air that none of this really matters - that this is just temporary, make-believe, a flick - and that that in itself can and will excuse any amount of incoherence and implausibility. Morgan Freeman appears to die twice, and come back; dragged with each new frame from her Kansas City home towards Washington, then New Orleans, Parker winds up wondering "How did we end up in New York?", and you do kinda know how she feels.
Arriving barely months after the very similar, if not entirely interchangeable Knight and Day, and mere weeks before The Tourist, it may chiefly be of note for announcing a new (or revised) model of mainstream American filmmaking for our present age of austerity: one that finds a vast talent base flying in for presumably reduced paycheques and a couple of days' shooting here and there on projects overseen by rent-a-hacks (if you can winkle out any thematic link between Robert Schwentke's work on Tattoo, The Time Traveller's Wife and this, you're a better critic than I), committing to no theme or idea in particular, but content to whip an audience along for the ride. I guess there are worse ways to kill a couple of hours, but if the characters refuse to stick around and burrow down in our subconscious, how on earth do you expect the movie to?