Monday, July 22, 2013

The Cinema File #222: "RED 2" Review

The original RED, very loosely based on a comic book by one of my favorite writers currently working today, Warren Ellis, was a delightful if somewhat overly silly spy action romp that was mostly saved by the pedigree of its cast. What made the movie so instantly enjoyable was just how much fun the actors were having playing off of each other, which came across on screen and elevated the material beyond what was a largely forgettable plot. RED 2 is considerably less fun, with the characters we know from the first one falling into a slightly disappointing mechanical routine when their not being ripped of every quality that made them interesting the first time, and a rapidly expanding cast including the addition of Catherine Zeta Jones and Anthony Hopkins, none of whom make up for one regrettably absent Morgan Freeman. And yet, perhaps solely on the left over goodwill from the original, even as all of its constituent parts are clearly deficient in comparison, RED 2 comes together in the end as something just good enough to justify the undertaking.

RED 2 follows Frank Moses and his girlfriend trying to live a normal life free of the kind of violence and mayhem that brought them together in the first place, until they are thrust back into the spy game after he and his LSD addled ex-partner are falsely implicated in a cold war era plot, sending them once again on the run and forced to prove their innocence. The action starts fairly quickly after we set up our main dilemma (Frank, now in love, fears for his girlfriend’s safety and is now reluctant to jump back into the action), and our first action scene is a very effective stand off between Frank and a S.W.A.T. team that’s obviously reminiscent of Die Hard. Unfortunately, once we get the gang back together and the movie becomes an ensemble more like the first one, the formula sets in and it becomes much more evident just how lackluster this new film is compared to what came before it.

The first problem is the obvious and unnecessary wussification of Bruce Willis’ character, who settles into the role of a boring boyfriend despite Mary-Louise Parker’s Sarah constantly insisting that he be himself and let more adventure and intrigue into their lives. Making him live in constant fear of his girlfriend’s safety might technically count as character development (as if this movie really needs it), but it accomplishes this at the expense of losing what was so essentially awesome about the character, that in all things, he is fearless and unflappable. Parker’s character has a similar problem, in that her once strong willed Sarah is weirdly diminished and almost infantilized, displaying a level of incompetence that is out of character and only present for slapstick awkward humor. The film’s attempt to force these two characters into a Lucy and Ricky style goofball romantic farce only serves to make them both annoying rather than charming, which is a line the first film was able to walk effortlessly despite so many of its characters being so absurdly perfect at everything.

The rest of the cast doesn’t come out unscathed either. John Malkovich’s unhinged Marvin seems all at once toned down and even more over the top depending on which scene he’s in, and when his role becomes romantic guru, some of the edge he brought to the first film gets chipped away with every weird platitude he spouts out. Helen Mirren is relatively the same, though I’m pretty sure she’s in the movie a lot less than last time, if I remember correctly, and an early twist concerning her character’s loyalties makes her a much less interesting character than she was at the outset. And yes, I know Morgan Freeman died in the first movie, but this is a spy movie whose plot already relies on one faked death, so I have to wonder, why couldn’t they have had one more? Zeta-Jones and Hopkins are no substitute, and both overstay their welcome fast, though that owes more to the roles their wedged into than their performances, forced to bring life to a stereotypical Russian femme fatale and a clearly not secretly evil bumbling scientist respectively. The only new character that really shines is the Korean assassin Han, who should have his own movie, because his relative youth compared to this cast of lovable geezers was more distracting than anything, especially considering he’s supposed to have history with them.

So why do I still say RED 2 is just good enough? Well, I can’t really say exactly. There’s nothing I can really point to in the movie that is as good or better than the first one, and a lot of little things that annoyed me in addition to the few big problems I’ve already mentioned, but by the end, there was just something about this familiar set up that allowed me to remain engaged with it throughout even in light of my increasing disappointment. I wanted to balk at how convoluted the plot was, but then I realized that I couldn’t even remember many of the specifics about the first movie’s plot. I wanted to roll my eyes as the action sequences went on far too long and just became gratuitous, but they were all for the most part choreographed and shot well enough that it didn’t really bother me as much as it might have in another movie. I wanted to be mad at it, but there was still just enough energy left over in this premise and just enough life left in these old codgers that I simply couldn’t be.

If you didn’t like the first RED, you needn’t bother with RED 2, as it’s basically more of the same, just not done as well. But then, even if you are a fan of the original, I still hesitate to give it a full throated review just based on all the issues I had with it. Maybe they won’t bother you as much as they did me, or maybe like me, you’ll pick up on that ineffable quality that makes them seem less important when all is said and done. In a way, RED 2 is structurally not unlike the many elaborate schemes the main characters need to pull off throughout the movie. It’s more complicated than it needs to be, presenting many opportunities to screw up along the way and need to rescue itself with quick thinking, charm, and blind luck, and yet strangely its successful in the end.

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