RED 2 Review

In what may be the second least anticipated sequel of the summer Bruce Willis and his gang of retired master class agents return for another round. I actually really enjoyed the first film as it presented something fresh, a new spin on a genre that by 2010 had seen Willis trying tirelessly to breathe life into a new possible franchise (Surrogates) while attempting to lampoon what made him the action star he is in the first place (Cop Out). Both attempts turned in horrible to average films, but nothing stuck. That was, until he managed to find the right film that balanced the comedy and action while at the same time being able to poke fun at the fact Willis was indeed a lot older now than when he made his first Die Hard film. That the first film also managed to make Willis seem like he was invested in the material was a definite plus. An air of indifference has plagued Willis in the majority of his actioners lately (this has remained true since RED as well with The Cold Light of Day, Expendables 2, and the disaster that was A Good Day to Die Hard) and is still somewhat apparent in this ultimately unnecessary sequel, but lucky for us Willis is not the only star the makers have recruited to keep us entertained and upping the chances crowds will buy tickets to this farcical action film in a summer season so crowded it would be difficult to stand out otherwise. While some of the big names are welcome returns and the others welcome additions their true value is measured by the mass appeal they bring and how this worked to the first films advantage, making it a sleeper hit. I remember being surprised by how many older people were in the audience to watch the first film at an early show and the same remained true this time around. That the older generations show up for the roster of prestigious actors and the younger for the guaranteed mindless action that has no doubt come to be associated with Willis' face, the producers can almost guarantee a hit. The good news is that, despite these films following formula to a T, there is more going on with the characters than in most generic action films and a surprising amount of laughs per minute that, if nothing else, guarantee a pleasant time.

John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker and Bruce Willis make things go boom in Red 2.
Based on the three-issue comic book mini-series of the same name this sequel picks up pretty much right where the first left off and finds Frank Moses (Willis) doing his best to keep his relationship with the curious and bubbly Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) as safe and secure as possible, so much to the point that he won't take her out to dinner at a restaurant for fear of someone shooting at them. As our story opens we find the off his rocker Marvin (John Malkovich) making his presence known in Frank's life again as there has apparently been some threat to both of their names as they've been associated with an operation known as Nightshade. The film actually begins with some very promising, often darkly humorous scenes that depict Marvin faking his death and Frank having to speak at his funeral  despite knowing the truth. Parker is also completely game for this type of thing as she plays up the new girlfriend looking for adventure role with full enthusiasm making us as excited for the possibility of joining in on covert operations as she is. Once the film gets rolling we are quickly introduced to a main antagonist as portrayed by the go-to villain of character actors, Neal McDonough, who in turn hires another guy to kill Frank while still going after him with his own team for reasons that aren't quite clear in the beginning. As the hired hand Byung-hun Lee is a sly and threatening presence, but his overall contribution to the story and the film feel unnecessary and could have completely been cut out, shaving the film down to a more brisk hour and a half. We are deep into the thick of a rather convoluted plot before Helen Mirren shows up to reprise her role as MI-6 agent Victoria and by the time Anthony Hopkins shows up as a genius weapons maker named Doctor Bailey I'd actually forgotten he was in this movie. The real shame is that we don't see Brian Cox return as Ivan Simonov until the film is nearly over and by that point I had to remind myself of his role in the first one. Catherine Zeta-Jones also shows up to add some fire and conflict to the Frank/Sarah dynamic while never over-doing the dramatics while other great character actors such as David Thewlis and Titus Welliver venture in and out of the screen at least re-enforcing the idea that if the story won't be wholly original, the execution of it will be done by the some of the best in the business.

This is important because the casting was what made the first so engaging and allowed it to become the kind of film you could watch several times without getting tired of it. To see the likes of John Malkovich and Helen Mirren playing these somewhat deranged characters who toss out quips about killing people while sounding extremely casual is genuinely funny, just in the basic sense of how that comes off. Sure, they rely on that joke a bit too much, but damn if Malkovich doesn't make every bit of it count and deliver the dialogue with such amusement. The simple still of Mirren holding a gun as you see below is enough to incite a chuckle and there is a nice little bit in the film that pokes fun at the "serious actress" she is held up to be by playing on her Oscar-winning performance in The Queen. Even Hopkins, who has taken to being more stagnant in his older age seems to having a bit of a laugh at himself here while clearing enjoying being able to act out and play the loopier side of things rather than having to be so serious all the time. While these individuals lend a kind of exuberance to the whole thing and allow this to be a good time based purely on their charisma there isn't as much of a fun or playful tone going along with these adventures as there were the first time around. why the director of the original, Robert Schwentke, passed on making this sequel for the unapologetically bad R.I.P.D. (which also opens this week) is a mystery as it seems more like he is moving from obscure comic book material to obscure comic book material in hopes of launching franchises with each of them. For all I know, R.I.P.D. could turn out to be light fun (I doubt it, but who knows) but for my money I would have rather seen Schwentke continue with these films and just pull Jeff Bridges into them rather than making Men In Black with dead people. Dean Parsiot takes over directing duties here though and as I imagined he would be well-equipped having made genre riffs such as Galaxy Quest he instead brings a simple level of formula studio action film to the proceedings with only his cast to bail him out.

Victoria (Helen Mirren) is good at what she does, and has ample opportunity to prove it.
In the end, Red 2 is neither horribly bad or earth shattering good. It is simply a ho-hum action film with some fine moments of hilarity and satire played to the hilt by it's top notch cast. I was overly-impressed with the first film and thus this sequel is somewhat of a let-down, but at least it makes the attempt to be something more. It does have a rather engaging story and despite us being able to feel the script's beats coming a mile away they are passable in the way that there is so much going on and so many characters going in different directions that the distractions from the particulars of the plot are in good service to the overall experience. The film doesn't look as good as you might expect, there are a handful of shots that look overly-grainy and not as if they are intentionally this way as opposed to The Heat where the color palette and picture quality was set up to elicit the tone of those 90's buddy cop flicks. It would also be regrettable if I didn't mention the scene in which David Thewlis who is known only as "The Frog" is chased through downtown Paris on a motorcycle and in several of the wide shots it is beyond clear it isn't the actor who is riding the bike. In this example and several others where green screen has clearly been used it almost feels as if that feeling of indifference passed from Willis to the makers. There are a couple of standout sequences, most including the menacing and equally striking Lee whose fighting style is allowed to seep into his fight scenes. These paired with the mentality of the first film to go for the overkill, being unabashedly inappropriate with the level of shooting and gun fire in the film and in public places give the film glimpses of what the original packed in consistently. It was rather disturbing to see innocent security guards and other personnel picked off so heartlessly in some of the early scenes and I understand that the movie is, for the most part, a send-up of how ridiculously bonkers genuine action movies can be, but tearing down a van with a machine gun and tearing down innocent bystanders in the process are two completely different things. The film has a moral code, but doesn't always adhere to its own rules. Whether Red 3 happens or not will depend on box office returns, but if we see these characters again is neither here nor there, but agreeable either way. No harm, no foul.