In yet another sign of the graying of the baby boomers, geezers are kicking butt on the screen. In “The Expendables” (2010) and “Red” (2010) and in their sequels, it does the heart good to watch Arnold and Sly and even genteel Helen Mirren show off their lethal, not-yet waning skills. It’s as if they are not only beating the bad guys, but the common enemy — time.
And so Robert De Niro joins the over-the-hill gang as Giovanni Manzoni, a mobster in the witness protection program. Renamed Fred Blake, he’s starting out a new life with his family (the previous locations did not work out, for reasons that soon become apparent) in the Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre.
From the start, director Luc Besson taps into De Niro’s oeuvre. The opening scene recalls “Casino” (1995), the next a moment from “Goodfellas” (1990) — and those are just the first Scorsese references. Given such credentials, no wonder “Blake” and the family — which includes his hot-tempered wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer, reprising her role from “Married to the Mob,” 25 years later), his volatile daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), and his racketeering 14-year-old son Warren (John D’Leo) — feel out of place in their new digs. Soon they are resolving differences with their French neighbors in ways the rest of us can only dream of: with a can of gas, a baseball bat, and a gang of hired thugs. They are the Addams family with penne pasta.
But such unrestrained id, even when indulged under the weary gaze of their FBI handler Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones, whose face in close-up looks like a planet), comes at a cost. Living on the run has put the family in a reflective mood. When Fred comes across a typewriter in the new house, he decides to write his memoirs. Maggie goes to confession, horrifying the priest. Even Warren writes an anecdote for the school paper, a move that summons the Furies in the form of a relentless assassin.
Not known for subtlety, Besson gets the expected laughs, and then some. He also exercises an unwonted finesse, not only with the allusions, but also with variations on the “f” word that, if not poetic, are at least funny. More importantly, he sometimes cuts comedy with troubling details — a shoe in a pool of blood, an unexpected tear. They are reminders that even in movies, time is the ultimate hit man.