Do you remember my review of A Good Day to Die Hard, all the way back in the mists of time?
There’s no reason for you to, but in it I aired my complaints with what has become of the series that gave Bruce Willis a career beyond Moonlighting. Namely, that it forgot what made the first three so unique: an ordinary New York cop who – in the wrong place at the wrong time – battles against the odds armed with nothing more than mordant humor (and perhaps a machine gun… ho ho ho).
As such, it’s strange that an ensemble piece about a team of jet-setting geriatric secret agents feels like probably the truest Die Hard film since With A Vengeance was released back in 1995.
That might be partly because of RED 2‘s sense of its own identity – unlike, for instance, a film that ends with John McClane taking on generic Russian baddies amidst the ruins of Chernobyl – as well as the best use of Willis in a comedy-actioner since The Last Boy Scout. It may be lacking in jeopardy, but it at least has something acceptable to substitute: talented older actors blowing s**t up, kicking arse, and generally embracing the absurdity of the whole premise. Think The Expendables but with wit and class (sorry – old habits).
What this goodie bag of awards adds up to is that RED 2 is more than just some lumbering beast relying on ’80s nostalgia; a relic and a dinosaur. It’s a living, breathing installment in what’s well on the way to becoming a decent franchise. Its roots in the Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer comic series may be more or less moot at this point – though the film tries to evoke them in unnecessary stylized scene transitions reminiscent of Ang Lee’s Hulk or perhaps 2010’s The Losers.
Dean Parisot’s direction is competent, unshowy, with the occasional flourish that suggests Timur Bekmambetov, particularly Wanted. A moment in which Catherine Zeta Jones’ Russian agent performs a handbrake turn in a Camaro, swinging the passenger-side door open with one gracefully stocking-ed leg to allow Willis’ Moses access to the still-moving vehicle, is an inversion of a moment from the previous film in which he exited a similarly still-moving vehicle.
Pedantic geekery aside (seriously, though, when is it ever?), the action is solid if not spectacular and all the obligatory set piece are in place – breaking in and out of an institute for the criminally insane, breaking into and out of the Kremlin. There’s even some attempt at an arc: RED 2 opens with Frank Moses attempting to settle into suburban normalcy with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), his former-pension-agent-turned-romantic-interest from the previous film.
Already, though, things are growing stale, and when the deeply paranoid Frank Boggs (John Malkovich) interrupts them on a trip to the store, Sarah is more eager than Frank to make a return to the life of adventure he once led. Soon enough, all three of them are on the run from the US government and crossing paths with the likes of MI6’s Victoria (Helen Mirren), freelance killer Han Cho-Bai (Byung-hun Lee) and Zeta-Jones’ Katya. All of this eventually brings them to the (cell) door of one Dr. Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), incarcerated rock star of conceptual mass killing.
You see, there’s an advanced nuclear device somewhere in Moscow of Moscow and the authorities erroneously believe that Moses et al know where it is. Along with their covert break-in to the former heart of Soviet power, you’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds an awful lot like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the most recent and most forgettable in the series.
However, whereas M:I is all about the dubious technology – Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is just a blank slate onto which to project a mission statement – RED 2 is all about the personalities. How they gel or spark off each other is the film’s primary delight and, as you might have guessed, selling point.
Though Willis is the de facto protagonist, the character he plays is one of the film’s least distinctive components. Willis can play the exasperated/deadpan bad-ass in his sleep – Hudson Hawk, The Fifth Element, Mercury Rising, Armageddon, The Whole Nine Yards, The Whole Ten Yards, Bandits, Hostage, Sin City, Lucky Number Slevin, Surrogates, Cop Out, The Cold Light of Day, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, to name a few – and Frank Moses is very much in that vein.
Even so, a scene in which he lures a special ops team into a storage room and takes them out – unarmed to machine gun, grenade, etc., etc., very John McClane – or one in which Moses lies paralyzed on a couch, his eyes rolling helplessly, as Sarah cheerfully and vengefully slaps the hell out of him, both showcase the blend of action and roguish charm that’s kept him in work since he had hair.
The MVP award, though, goes to Malkovich as Boggs: of all the cast members, he’s given the least to do – probably because the writers, Jon and Erich Hoeber, realized he could pretty much take care of himself – but manages to if not steal then set the tempo for moment he’s onscreen. With his innumerable tics, flickering expressions, and shifty eyes, Malkovich fits Boggs down to a tee.
As a retired CIA agent who was secretly dosed with LSD on a daily basis for eleven years, apart from a few plot crucial moments, Boggs is more or less a comedy prop but Malkovich – who arguably played a slightly more well-balanced version of the type back in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading – manages to make something of the part on the basis of sheer and simple magnetism.
Helen Mirren, too, is great as the wry, sophisticated Victoria – administering relationship advice over the phone while disposing of bodies in an acid bath, wearing an elegant evening dress.
The other Oscar-winning member of the cast, Anthony Hopkins, doesn’t initially come off quite so well: on his initial appearance, he’s expected to play manic, rambling, as the genius who’s been locked up for thirty years. Hopkins’ gravitas prevents this from ever being irritating, but it comes across as slightly “bleh”: gesticulating crazy people – been there, done that (and this isn’t exactly Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys).
In any case, Hopkins redeems the role after the immediate histrionics, settling down into more comfortable Hannibal Lecter territory. Love him though I do in Remains of the Day or Amistad, I feel he’s at his best when he’s allowed a malicious glint in his eye.
Of the primary characters, Mary-Louise Parker and Byung-hun Lee are worst served by the film. Parker is endearingly chipper as Sarah – not to mention how unbelievable she looks given she’s pushing fifty! – but the role, which should be empowering (if Dame Helen can do this, so can I!), basically places her in the position of unlikely savior/likely hostage and revolves around shopping, scowling, and a repeated snogging joke.
Lee, meanwhile, plays the stereotype of deadly Oriental assassin – the first time we see him he’s dressed (ironically) in a kimono – and, though “Han” apparently has a history of grievances with Willis’ Moses, is mostly required to kick ass (which he does repeatedly, at one point while handcuffed to a fridge door) and widen his eyes in fury. At least his character’s allowed the luxurious subversion of an (almost) American accent.
In support, we’ve got Zeta-Jones as Moses’ former flame, his Kryptonite. The part is fairly slight and somewhat severe, her motivation alternating between “I love Frank/want to show him up” and “Duty to Mother Russia”. Moses seems at no point in danger of choosing her over Sarah, which makes any frisson between them – of which there is remarkably little – a moot point.
Brian Cox returns in an extended cameo as Ivan, the avuncular Russian oligarch from the first film, and David Thewlis – known to most as Lupin in the Harry Potter films – the horn-rimmed Frog, leading the team on a motorbike/Camaro/VW Beetle chase through central Paris (the actor’s first action-oriented/plot device role I can think of, though he was, of course, the evil king in Dragonheart).
Throw in blue-eyed Neal McDonough as quirky lead henchmen (think Robert Quarles in Justified) and you have a film that’s willing to get some top-level talent on-board in order to service what could, admittedly, otherwise be a fairly hackneyed premise.
One of things I like most about RED 2 is that it doesn’t patronize: it’s cast may be mostly older than the median to appear in a summer tent-pole actioner but the film doesn’t feel the need to keep reminding you. Bruce Willis is 58; John Malkovich, 59; Helen Mirren, 68, but, while they may be “Retired”, the film is more about the “Extremely Dangerous” part of the acronym.
Besides from Victoria beating down an impertinent field agent who commented that her tenure must have been before his time (in all fairness, he was about to garotte her) and Marvin taking a moment to ask Moses if he feels old (he doesn’t), Parisot and co. are content to just let them get on with it.
RED 2 is full of panache and brio (and other words that sound like they should be food). It’s lightweight and throwaway but highly entertaining. If a film can give me a reason to like it, I usually will – they can’t all be gems, but if there’s even one facet to admire then it’s probably worth a look – and this provides at least half a dozen.
With its Mr. and Mrs. Smith approach to emotional longevity (a couple that commits covert ops together stays together) and Bekmambetovian (that is now a word) approach to action, the film doesn’t do much its predecessor didn’t and it’ll probably be forgotten come October.
Regardless, for giving me more Willis/Malkovich/Mirren/Hopkins/etc./etc. in my life, for the performances alone, RED 2 deserves some appreciation. There’s a lot to yipee-ki-yay about; maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes you don’t have to; one good turn deserves another. Done.