Normally, senior citizens don't get a whole lot of love at the movies, being relegated most of the time to twinkly-grandma and cantankerous-neighbor roles. Yet this weekend sees the release of "Red," an action flick about a team of over-the-hill black-ops agents who come out of retirement when one of their own is threatened. Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren have always brought major thespian firepower to all of their roles, but this time they get to shoot really big guns.
Not every oldster needs weaponry to feel empowered, of course. Sparky retirees have had a firm hold on the affections of movie buffs through the ages, and all of us have our favorites. The following list isn't anywhere near exhaustive. But it includes a sample of tough-cookie characters from across the decades: lovers, adventurers, vaudevillians, streakers, folks who might be up there in years but aren't yet down-and-out.
"The Straight Story" (1999): From David Lynch came this plainspoken and -- exactly as advertised -- straightforward tale of an old guy (Richard Farnsworth) who drives his lawnmower across Iowa and Wisconsin on a quest to reconcile with his ailing brother. "I've gotta go see Lyle," he says at the outset. Off he goes, plugging across broad swaths of land.
"Harold and Maude" (1971): This almost didn't make the list; as much as I love the movie, I hate the ending. But Ruth Gordon's performance as the high-spirited golden gal who meets and charms a morbid young man (Bud Cort) is surely one of cinema's most vivid depictions of aging as a catalyst for joy.
"The Trip to Bountiful" (1985): Geraldine Page is a determined old lady trying to get out of Houston and back to her old hometown, overprotective son be darned. It's a wistful and winning odyssey.
"Up" (2009): You cried during the first 20 minutes of "Up." You did. (If you didn't, what's wrong with you?) After that, you felt a pang of affection for the widower Carl, who overcomes the cantankerous-neighbor stereotype with the help of a buoyant script and Ed Asner's marvelous voice work.
"The Sunshine Boys" (1975): This film adaptation of Neil Simon's play -- about a couple of sassy ex-vaudevillians who reunite, "Red"-style, for one last gig -- snagged an Oscar for best-supporting actor George Burns.
"Oh, God!" (1977): Speaking of Burns, yeah, this is a corny movie. But isn't his four-eyed Almighty the most empowered octogenarian ever? He starts a rainstorm in John Denver's car. He appears in court with unbeatable timing (God being sworn in: "So help me, Me."). And face it: No one rocks a golf jacket like he does.
"Young@Heart" (2007): This documentary follows a chorus of Massachusetts seniors who belt out arrangements of rock tunes, and it's a blast. But it's also a life-affirming look at the power of music, the bonds of friendship and show-must-go-on perseverance.
"Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1939): As Mr. Chipping, an 83-year-old retired schoolmaster who flashes back to his years in the classroom, Robert Donat's eyes beam with warmth and wisdom. My favorite inspirational-teacher movie.
"The Shootist" (1976), "Unforgiven" (1992): Different actors, different eras, similar plot: An aging gunslinger (John Wayne in the first, Clint Eastwood in the second) gives up a quiet existence to ply his old trade, with bloody results.
"Star Wars" (1977): Alec Guinness might have rued the day he signed on to play a certain unretired Jedi master named Obi-Wan Kenobi, but jillions of geeks know better. You can fell him with a light saber, but you can't keep him down.
"Umberto D" (1952): Vittorio De Sica's neorealist classic tells of an impoverished pensioner (Carlo Battisti) who scrapes around for rent money, and a reason to live, with his little dog at his side. What might have been an exercise in bathos becomes something else -- a soft-spoken testament to hope.
"Cocoon" (1985): One in a spate of Jessica Tandy movies from the 1980s and early '90s ("Fried Green Tomatoes" with Kathy Bates, "Driving Miss Daisy" with Morgan Freeman), this one gets the vote for the sheer density of vintage movie stars -- Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Maureen Stapleton -- and for its endearingly goofy sci-fi plot, in which residents of a retirement community soak up fountain-of-youth waters in an extraterrestrial swimming pool.
"Get Low" (2010): Robert Duvall plays a hairy, scary, misanthropic hermit in search of absolution -- or some small peace of mind -- as he pushes forward with plans for his funeral. Then Sissy Spacek arrives, and he melts. I did, too.