Red is the latest in a slew of American movies about over-the-hill action heroes who return to their former wild ways for a fresh round of (borderline arthritic) fisticuffs.

Sylvester Stallone has been a major proponent in this surge of worn-knuckle, I-ain’t-dead-yet flicks with frame-chewing performances in Rocky Balboa, Rambo and The Expendables. And the past-their-prime genre broadly spans caped crusader pics (The Watchmen, The Invincibles) to more dark and brooding fare (The Wrestler, Harry Brown, Gran Torino). These are movies about blokes who refuse to slip into retirement the usual way: with a mellow embrace of crosswords, tea and bitching about youngsters on their front lawn.

The genre has been sadly bereft on the opposite side of the gender divide, which is partly why there are some pleasures in store in Red — particularly watching Helen Mirren’s take-no-prisoners performance as a not-quite-retired female assassin. She knits, she bakes, and she pops some unlucky targets here and there.

Red stands for “retired and extremely dangerous” and follows Frank (Bruce Willis) a former CIA agent who is forced back into the job of killing, running and smashing skulls when orders from the powers that be in DC stipulate that he and a bunch of other former agents need to die, and fast.

Frank teams with other folk on the “kill now” list including Marvin (John Malkovich) who, back in those halcyon days of high-profile operative work, was fed LSD every day for 11 years straight — the sort of role, in other words, that Malkovich takes to like a sponge to water. Mirren is Victoria, an old-school assassin and Morgan Freeman is Joe, who spends his days endeavouring to get the best possible view of his nurses’ behind at a retirement village. The band get back together for another concert of action mayhem.

If the casting of Bruce Willis wasn’t such a pleasure to watch — that cranium is modern action cinema’s iconic noggin, the golden egg of take-no-guff still-got-it fists n grunt bravado — one could argue that director Robert Schwentke made his first conceptual mistake. Willis never did retire from action movies, never went quietly into the night, so the audience don’t feel the gravity of an actor who was also divorced status from “the game” — such as Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.

Like the characters they play, these folk ain’t dead yet. Not by a long shot. And while Red doesn’t forgive Schwentke’s sins of the past — Flightplan, 2005’s klutzy rehash of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishing, and particularly The Time Traveller’s Wife, that obtuse tissue-box rendering of Audrey Niffenegger’s innovative novel — it goes some way in establishing himself as a confident and capable director.

The details: Red is playing in cinemas nationally.

Peter Fray

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