Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Movie Review: Red 2

The action comedy genre has taken a few licks in the last few years. As big-budget superhero extravaganzas and elaborate CG-creations like Avatar continue to shatter the box office, studios and audiences have been less and less drawn to a good old-fashioned shoot-em-up where a hero takes names and cracks wise.

It's also a difficult balance to strike as filmmakers try to keep the tone light and fun in the midst of death and destruction and, hopefully, compelling stakes. For every Lethal Weapon there's a McG-directed This is War or the recently abysmal Tower Heist by Bret Ratner.

But in 2010 we got Red, based on a graphic novel about retired spies deemed "RED," or Retired Extremely Dangerous, by their respective agencies, who are called back into action by circumstances beyond their control. Red, directed by Robert Schwentke, was a winning combination of elegant low-fi action, absurdist comedy and satire that practically came out of nowhere and nosed it's way onto my list of 2010's Top 10 films.

In Red 2 we find our hero, retired CIA operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), adjusting to domestic life with his lady Sarah, played by Mary-Louise Parker, who we quickly learn has developed a degree of boredom to a pedestrian life where bullets aren't constantly flying past her head. They are approached by Moses' former intelligence colleague Marvin (John Malkovich) who warns them that someone is coming for them all.

In short order, Moses is taken in for questioning by FBI agents on something called "nightshade," but those agents are quickly dispatched by a CIA wet team led by Neal McDonough, stepping in for Karl Urban in the Government Agent With Ambiguous Moral Leanings role.

Moses escapes with Sarah in tow, initiating an international hunt for the retired spy with both the U.S. and London calling in assassins to clean things up, specifically Moses' friend Victoria (played by Helen Mirren) in the case of our brothers across the pond and "best in the world" Han (G.I. Joe's Byung-hun Lee) who has a personal vendetta against Moses.

The plot skips from Paris to Moscow to London, picking up a few more characters along the way, namely Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins, and stopping for increasingly elaborate action set pieces at every turn as our band of heroes dodges both the authorities and Han in their search for answers on what/where is Nightshade and why they've been branded as terrorists.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is the weak link in the ensemble. Her character Katja, a Russian intelligence bureaucrat, is presented as a former flame of Willis' Frank Moses and used as a wedge for the relationship between Moses and Sarah, but Zeta-Jones mostly comes off as wooden and the victim of a bad spray tan. Compared to the zippy chemistry of the principal Scooby Gang cast, Zeta-Jones never quite jells with the tone of the film and her scenes stick out awkwardly.

In terms of storytelling, Red 2 suffers from a recurring plot trope that sees the gang's plan nearly foiled on a number of occasions only to be salvaged because a would-be protagonist chooses friendship with Moses over loyalty to king and country. "I'm here to kill you" they bark at Willis, gun pointed in his face. "But we're friends/the greater good/etc" he retorts. "JK! I'll help you," they say, shrugging their weapons over their shoulders.

The film could afford to trim it's running time, particularly from the first act which spends 15-odd minutes on an amusing but ultimately pointless plot tangent. And while I wouldn't go so far as to say Red 2 predictable, there is very little that occurs that is complete unforseen which makes the finale pale slightly in comparison to the ingenuity of the first film's third act.

But the humor pops and the action is great, all done with the same winking smile that made the first film so enjoyable. Director Dean Parisot (who stepped in for Schwentke and who is best known for 1999's superb Galaxy Quest) is more liberal in his use of CGI than his predecessor, but the lion's share of the mayhem is achieved through in-camera effects and choreography, which is one of the franchise's strongest points.

Mary Louise-Parker's role is upgraded considerably as she starts to learn the ways of international espionage and wanton destruction. John Malkovich, whose LSD-damaged pseduo-lunatic Marvin stole the show in Red 1, wisely dials back the neurosis of his character, keeping him from becoming one-note while still providing laughs. If anyone is underutilized it is the indominable Hellen Mirren, who at 67 still looks amazing firing a submachine gun and who, in a particularly great sequence, slips in a meta-nod to her former roles as Queen Elizabeth.

In a landscape of increasingly mindless sequels, Red 2 provides a satisfying follow-up that, while not surpassing its predecessor, matches the tone of the first film and delivers a welcome summer smash.

Grade: B

*Red 2 opens nationwide on Friday, July 19.

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