The group of former intelligence spooks that populates RED (a title formed from the acronym stamped on the personnel files of people like those that make up the reassembled team: “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”) is some sort of casting coup. Everyone who shows up not only makes perfect sense but also adds an edge of the slightly unexpected, as though their respective characters are just on the brink of breaking out of mold of their assigned characterizations. That they never quite do is either impressive self-control or a lower level of involvement.

Given the quantity of quality actors here, I will give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s the former. The result, though, is a movie teetering between what it feels it needs to do and just taking the plunge into the lunacy with which it teases.

Bruce Willis leads the rest as Frank Moses, a retired CIA operative who wakes up at six in the morning on the nose without the aid of an alarm, takes a handful of pills, does his exercise routine, and catches up on some reading. His genre of choice these days is one trashy romance novel after another, thanks to the recommendations of Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the telephone operator who takes care of any problems that might arise with Frank’s government pension checks. He ensures there’s a problem every time he receives one by ripping it in half and claiming it never arrived. He tosses out that he might be in her next of the woods soon, and she agrees they should meet.

Then Frank’s house is destroyed by gunfire and explosions when a South African hit squad tries to kill him one night. He immediately drives to rescue Sarah from a boring blind date and another set of killers. She can’t help but trust him, since he ties her up, gags her, and keeps her in the backseat.

On the other end of the assassination plot is William Cooper (Karl Urban), currently a Company Man with orders to hunt down Frank. Some kind of conspiracy (something to do with a murdered reporter, the Vice President of the United States (Julian McMahon), and a massacre in South America) explains the rationale and each successive step Frank and his cohorts take, although it’s the sort of plot that demands and deserves not to be explored for any amount of time.

One by one, the rest of Frank’s old professional acquaintances enter. Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) is now in a nursing home, suffering from stage four liver cancer, wrecking the reception on the television reception in the living area so he can ogle the nurse bending over to fix it, realizing he never thought he would get old. It’s not just youthful denial but, perhaps, genuine surprise, considering in his line of work.

Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) lives on the bayou, although technically underneath it. His cottage on a dock is just a front for an underground lair. A conspiracy theorist who carries a stuffed pig around with him, his behavior is the result of daily doses of LSD for eleven years.

Victoria (Helen Mirren) has taken to retirement well, arranging flowers and killing for an occasional contract hit on the side. She knows a thing or two about love in the time of espionage, telling Sarah how she once loved a man. Forced to choose between him and her cover and country, she chose the latter with three well-placed shots. If Sarah ever hurts Frank, Victoria promises a similar action toward her.

Then the ancillary characters come into play. Richard Dreyfuss plays a scummy arms manufacturer who insists on never being one-upped in playing the bad guy, Ernest Borgnine has a two-scene cameo as the records keeper in the basement of Langley, and Brian Cox is Ivan, once Frank’s nemesis in the Cold War. Now they share vodka and secrets in newfound camaraderie.

It’s the kind of cast that lends more credence to the material than it deserves. The characters barely move past the archetypes (leader, soulful, crazy, cold-blooded) of their comic book origins (a graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner), except in brief flashes, like Freeman’s ruminations on the past and some of Malkovich’s wilder outbursts.

Otherwise Jon and Erich Hoeber’s screenplay is about filling in the time between action sequences. Some (Frank stepping out of a spinning car with as little effort as though it were parked, a firefight that discovers three different ways to explode an attacker) are energetic, while pedestrian direction by Robert Schwentke keeps others (a shootout in snowy woods, the final chase/gun battle) forgetful.

Hints of the absurd display the potential of RED. In spite of the cast, it’s an unfulfilled promise.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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