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Some of the best stuff in Robert Schwentke’s RED is in the early scenes, in the setup before it really gets going. In the first half hour, the movie segues smoothly from sweetly eccentric, long-distance-telephone rom-com maneuvers, into big-bang cartoonish violence and on to a comic abduction.

The sight of Bruce Willis, as Frank, a retired CIA agent, sitting up in bed late at night reading a Harlequin Romance-style novel entitled Love’s Savage Story, is certifiably cute. Frank, the agent, is trying to connect with a woman he’s only spoken to on the phone by sharing one of her interests. This turns out to be inadequate preparation for the (literally) explosive gun-battle set piece that ensues, gets the movie’s momentum going, and fixes its direction.

RED is a large-gestured, comic espionage romp with a lot of flip, burlesqued violence and a few touches of patently faux-sentimentality. It’s derived from a graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, and while it reportedly goes rather far afield from the original’s story line, it hasn’t severed its connection with that medium’s tone, its high-contrast emotion and aesthetic. It’s surprisingly effective entertainment, considering the precedential evidence.

Schwentke’s previous work (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Flightplan) didn’t portend such slick, game-on fun as RED delivers. But his work here is deft enough, and he seems to have kept out of the way of the old-hand stars who give his movie the largest part of its verve and ridiculous appeal. This isn’t the kind of thing one often has the occasion to write about a Bruce Willis movie, and I might not need to if RED had kept to the dimensions of the source material. It was about an out-of-the-harness American agent drawn back into gun-blazing action by a very high-level and murderous conspiracy that is including him as a target.

The filmmakers have expanded on this to involve several other ex-operatives in his mission, plus a hapless innocent named Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the woman for whom Frank is trying to read that soggy love saga. She’s a bored, lonely government functionary in Kansas City whom he calls from the East Coast to complain about missing pension checks. Their eventual clever-cute meeting entails duct tape and kidnapping. Parker is wryly game, if a little forlorn at first, and her very smart performance is one of RED’s real assets.

Another is John Malkovich’s paranoid with privileges, an erstwhile spy who was the unknowing subject of Company experiments with LSD. Now he scans the skies with binoculars at any mechanical sound from above and lives in a ’57 Chevy in the Everglades. Well, not exactly, but it doesn’t really matter. Malkovich’s mad-eyed but sincere and semi-delusional wacko is a fine little comic divertissement (and one that should not be much of a surprise, given the weirdly comedic subtext to so many of his dramatic appearances).

Along for the pawky proceedings are Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren. Dame Mirren has said she kept Martha Stewart in mind as she prepared herself to play a bed-and-breakfast proprietor who was once an MI5 gunslinger, a piece of information that ought to give one pause. Brian Cox is an unctuously and romantically nostalgic former KGB man and Richard Dreyfuss shows up as a nasally half-whining monster, a frighteningly well-connected arms merchant. Willis has nothing like the resources of these players, but he fits in well enough.

RED barrels along with big-shouldered, preposterous scenes and sequences, culminating in a kind of deadly caper plot, although it does get a bit irresolute and sloppy at the very end. Which is only a small shame since what preceded it was nothing more than spicy-sweet empty calories of movie fare, anyway.

There is a certain discordance threading its way through RED below the surface. Most of the leading characters, including the lethally competent Company agent (Karl Urban) trying to get Frank and a couple of his old friends, are meant to be good guys, even though they are current or former murderers, effectively. It’s probably not worth reflecting on, but I thought I’d mention it.

Watch the trailer for Red

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