'Red': Slam-bang mayhem with a bit of slapstick

Beware, people: Flirtatious phone patter seems harmless enough - two strangers batting innuendos late into the night - but it can be hazardous to your health.

One minute you're on the phone, separated from the husky-voiced gent by hundreds of miles. Next thing you know, you've been drugged and abducted, and folks are chasing you in cars and helicopters, shooting at you with guns and rockets.

That's how things shake out for Mary-Louise Parker, anyway, gamely playing a lonely government pensions clerk in Red, a breakneck (for a time), slapstick action pic adapted from the DC Comics book.

Like Cameron Diaz caught up in Tom Cruise's spy-guy mayhem in Knight and Day, Parker is the innocent tagalong to Bruce Willis' black-ops veteran in Red. His name is Frank Moses and he's quit and gone underground, but on a Christmas Eve in Cleveland, someone decides to riddle his house with rounds of ammunition and artillery fire.

In the kind of screen-writing contrivance that a romp like this is allowed (call it ballistic license), it now becomes necessary for Frank to fly off, break into the apartment of Parker's Sarah, and drag her along as he goes tearing around the country, a slick, high-tech killer (Karl Urban) hot on the trail.

Red, it turns out, is an acronym for "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" - a description that fits Frank to a T. Frank is RED, and so, too, are the members of his old CIA team, a group he now reassembles (shades of The Expendables) to go after whomever it is that's trying to annihilate him. Enter John Malkovich, as a paranoid loon living in the Florida swamps, Morgan Freeman as a restless rest-home resident, and Helen Mirren as an ace assassin. (Trivia note: Dame Helen has been here before, starring as a hit woman in Lee Daniels' kooky, Philadelphia-shot Shadowboxer.)

Directed by Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, The Time Traveler's Wife), Red has the cool, swaggering vibe of an action movie where the actors and the audience know that nothing is really on the line. And at a certain point - probably around the time a visit is paid to a cartoonishly sinister Richard Dreyfuss (an evil defense contractor) - the whole movie runs out of gas. Too long, too busy, too loud, and too reliant on slam-bang stunt work, Red's glib dialogue and sinister government scenarios begin to wear.

But Willis keeps his smirk on anyway, and Parker, wry and flaky, stays for the ride. Then again, what choice does she have?

Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/



Directed by Robert Schwentke. With Brian Cox, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Mary-Louise Parker, Richard Dreyfuss, John C. Reilly, Bruce Willis, Julian McMahon. Distributed by Summit Entertainment.

Parent's guide: Unrated ().