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RED, an entertaining if uneven action comedy directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time-Traveler's Wife) and based on a graphic novel by Warren Ellis, could be called Grumpy Old Spies, but that would be a tad inaccurate. (But damn if it isn't convenient!) The title is an acronym for Retired, Extremely Dangerous, a label applied in the film to former CIA agents Frank (Bruce Willis), Joe (Morgan Freeman), and Marvin (John Malkovich), and ex-MI6er Victoria (Helen Mirren), all of whom have officially retired from the espionage industry. Truth be told, only one of them, Marvin, appears particularly grumpy, and only because he was apparently fed him massive doses of paranoia-inducing LSD by his employers back in the '60s. And involuntary brain-scrambling does have a tendency to breed bitterness.

Elders Joe and Victoria, for their part, are living out their golden years quite contentedly: he's happy to spend his days ogling the female attendants at his nursing home, while she keeps busy with the occasional freelance assassination. Only Frank, the youngest member of their ranks, seems ill-at-ease with life after the Agency. Which is why he doesn't look altogether perturbed when he discovers that he's been turned into a target, framed for a bloody South American debacle that he'd helped clean up in the '80s. After calmly dispatching a dozen or so heavily-armed government goons sent to eliminate him, Frank sets about getting the gang back together and heading to D.C. to foil the conspiracy and clear his name. Along the way, he snatches up Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a chatty customer service rep/love interest whose life he inadvertently endangered when he revealed too much during one of their flirty phone conversations.

RED's "badass old people" conceit isn't entirely original, but with a cast this impressive it hardly matters. Parker, the lowest-billed member of the main ensemble, is the unsung hero of the film. Though her romantic subplot with Willis is never truly convincing, her brand of witty bewilderment is RED's most endearing aspect, followed closely by the delightful presence of Malkovich, hitting his comic peak in the "crotchety crank" stage of his career. As a director, Schwentke's action-movie sensibilities are a bit crude -- his favorite move is to simply crank up the volume and shower the screen with bullets -- but his comedic instincts are spot-on. And luckily for him, the foibles of RED's punchy but unimaginative script, which too often goes from amusingly preposterous (Dame Helen Mirren with a machine gun!) to stupidly preposterous (its convoluted plot involves a war criminal-turned-Vice President and his defense-contractor puppetmaster), are redeemed by its venerable cast. rated this film 3 1/2 stars.