They’ve Aged, But Haven’t Lost A Step
The theme of the summer blockbuster this year has been total world annihilation. Whether it occurs from extra-terrestrials, Kryptonians, or zombies, directors and cinematographers have done their absolute best to viscerally exploit, smash, and smolder grand cities and turn them into rubble. The colossal damage witnessed to cataclysmic levels was usually bred maybe once or twice a year, but dare I say, a skyscraper turning into splinters over the last few weeks has now become a desensitizing experience at the local multiplex.
So in RED 2, when an Interpol agent explains that a game-changing nuclear weapon is believed to have gone missing during the Cold War, the possibility of global destruction just feels trivial. That of course is not the only thing against this sequel’s favor, which pits Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Mary Louise Parker back together again. The film, directed by newcomer to the franchise Dean Parisot, although peppered with mild humor and wit, feels at its most unnecessary, seemingly banking on the hope that ex-CIA agents with wrinkles and white hair- or no hair- are still inherently funny.
That presumption, along with its star cast, is what helped make this film’s predecessor a sleeper fall hit, a different kind of Expendables with quirky characters and women, of all things. This runaround, we pick up with Frank Moses (Willis), the retired black-ops agent and his ditzy civilian girlfriend Sarah (Parker) living the indiscriminate life. Old friend Marvin (Malkovich) shows up and then quickly fakes his death after his car explodes- it’s not really a spoiler if you’ve seen the trailer. This of course then spurs on some rogue agents to take Frank into custody, believing Marvin and Frank still know the whereabouts of the destructive device.
The corrupt leader Jack Horton (Neal McDonough) assembles a squad of gunmen after Frank, who has managed to keep his head-butt escaping skills in tact, and corners him in a warehouse. Horton boasts he has Frank outnumbered, 7-1, but doesn’t he know by now? This is Bruce Willis he’s dealing with, someone who Marvin calls “a simple man with simple needs: eating and killing.” His character is an aged cocktail of John McClain and Butch Coolidge, the latter mostly due to his oddball relationship with Sarah, harkening to his Pulp Fiction bipolar sentimentalism and misplaced rage.
This dysfunctional couple has their moments of dual black comedy, as Sarah’s primary whining revolves around her wanting to be part of the mission this time and to use that shiny revolver Marvin keeps sneaking to her. Their incongruent romance takes central focus this time, which both gives the story a motivation and takes away valuable screen time from its key components. Like Victoria (Mirren) for instance, who is informed to exterminate Frank and Marvin but like an old friend gives them a heads up about it. She is the most straight-laced character, nonchalantly killing while on the phone, sniping from a distance while romantically toying with her German military leader boyfriend played by Brian Cox. Her moment of glory comes in a double fisted handgun car spin, and it’s really the film’s crowning comedic moment. Take that for what it’s worth.
The stumbling and bumbling trio on the run from danger and in search of answers essentially takes a European tour, stopping in Paris, London, and finally Moscow. Amidst their travels they encounter a Japanese vigilante (Byung-hun Lee) with a grudge against Frank as well as Frank’s former fling, now Russian spy Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Women are Frank’s weakness as Sarah observes and what follows are a good helping of zings, hijinks, and bait and switches that try to keep pace with the team’s constant jet setting. How do we know they’ve crossed a border? The innocuous, and utterly pointless, use of cartooned freezes, infrequently reminding us that the story is, at its heart, a graphic novel.
RED stands for “retired and extremely dangerous” and so naturally Parisot makes sure there is plenty of extreme danger to go around. One of their leads is called “the frog” played by David Thewlis, mounting towards a shoot-up in a restaurant. The other is the mastermind, a kooky professor played by Anthony Hopkins who’s been in solitary confinement and carries around a foggy memory. His capture incites larger scale violence, some deftly handled with well-timed punches, others with the more ubiquitous explosives. Ultimately, the film thinks it’s smarter than it really is.
If Parisot, with writers Jon and Erich Hoeber, had spent more time focused on the ironic nature of elders strapping up and kicking butt, maybe a sequel would have felt more logical. Instead, the fun you might expect is minimal. You won’t get bored in this installment, which is as much as I can say, and, to a certain extent, is somehow an achievement in the middle of this summer.