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Non-Review Review: RED 2

Red 2 is a stronger film than Red, although it’s still not quite a wholly satisfying cinematic experience. There’s a certain charm to watching all these veteran stars reuniting on the screen together, with a considerably lighter touch than The Expendables. What’s interesting about Red 2 isn’t a dearth of good ideas or interesting hooks in the set-up of this sequel, it’s just a littler rushed, a little unfocused, a little disjointed. However, Red 2 generally moves so fast that these problems never quite reach critical mass. The result is more-than-occasionally great fun, but also just a little too light for its own good.

Growing old disgracefully...

Growing old disgracefully…

The cast of Red 2 are all veterans. The movie features most of the cast of the original (barring Morgan Freeman and Karl Urban), along with a health selection of new blood. It’s nice to see performers like Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Thewlis and even Stephen Berkoff join the fun, and it seems that everybody is enjoying themselves – even if nobody’s really pushing themselves too hard.

None of the performances are quite phoned in (although Bruce Willis gets considerable mileage out of that thing where he sighs, winces and shakes his head all the same time so you know he’s tired and has had enough of this particular situation or conversation), but none are especially inspired either. None of this is new, none of this stretches the range of any of the actors involved, but there is something charming about seeing these performers given the opportunity to showboat.

Back in the driving seat...

Back in the driving seat…

Indeed, Hopkins seems to casually slip in and out of his screen personas as if idly searching for a comfortable fit in the role of the movie’s eccentric weapons designer, Edward Bailey. We get flashes of the absent-minded socially-awkward Hopkins from films like Shadowlands, and the movie even finds room for some of the camper scene-stealing of his later Lecter portrayals in Hannibal and Red Dragon.

The same is true for the other leads. Helen Mirren gets to jokingly insist that she’s the Queen of England. The wonderful Brian Cox shows up for a couple of scenes, seemingly so the movie can boast about uniting the first two actors to play Hannibal Lecter. The movie dutifully telegraphs its twists and its plot points, but it seems more interested in watching its cast having a good time than it is in constructing a particularly tight action thriller. Red 2 just about gets away with it due to the charm of the cast.

Easy there, cowboy...

Easy there, cowboy…

In fact, it’s the actors in the smaller roles who do the best work. Mary-Louise Parker throws herself wonderfully into the role of Sarah, Frank Mose’s girlfriend. It’s Parker’s enthusiasm which carries the whole “couple in a relationship midlife crisis” which underscores a lot of the film. The idea of a couple reigniting the spark through gratuitous violence and reckless bloodshed might seem a bit trite, but Parker gives the movie a sense of energy and urgency which carries the plotline a lot further than it might otherwise go.

Similarly, the movie doesn’t seem to appreciate the charm of Neal McDonagh stepping into the “(relatively) young whippersnapper messing with our old fogeys” role that Karl Urban played in the original. McDonagh’s character is introduced as an immediate threat to Frank and his circle of semi-retired bad-asses, but McDonagh manages to make his government hit man seem strangely charming. At the very least, his sheer frustration with the ineptitude of his hired help (“what are you? six? seven guys? and he’s unarmed!”) gives the relatively minor character a little flare.

A romantic getaway...

A romantic getaway…

Unfortunately, McDonagh winds up a victim of the film’s lack of focus. In the film’s third act, he’s unceremoniously dumped in favour of a newer and bigger bad guy, one who is definitely more recognisable to audiences. That’s a shame, because McDonagh does some wonderful work with the material he’s given – politely asking for office staff’s names before killing them in cold blood, sampling fancy wine during a no-holds-barred advanced interrogation and remaining upbeat and charming while boasting about what he’s going to do to the poor scientist that MI6 had locked up in “a prison within a prison” for a few decades.

Red 2 moves surprisingly fast, which is both one of the movie’s cardinal virtues and a significant flaw. Jet-setting across the globe, with pit stops in Paris, London and Moscow, the film doesn’t give the audience too much time to catch its breath. If a scene or set-up isn’t quite working, the movie brushes straight past it. There are no hang-ups, and nothing really overstays its welcome – which is quite an accomplishment for a film running four minutes short of two hours.

Jones-ing for an action throwback?

Jones-ing for an action throwback?

Things change dramatically and it’s never too long before there’s a convenient reversal or shift in fortunes to keep the audience on their toes. It keeps the movie light on its feet and prevents it from ever feeling too bogged-down or monotonous. Coupled with the charm of its impressive cast, it keeps things moving. It’s fun, light and breezy. Offering advice on how to keep a relationship interesting, John Malkovich’s Marvin suggests “action, romance, danger!” And it would seem those three words were the driving force behind the movie’s creative process.

The film’s set pieces read like an action movie menu. Red 2 finds time for a prison break-out, a Kremlin break-in and an Iranian embassy siege in fairly rapid succession. Indeed, a cynical commentator might remark upon the fact that the climax of the movie involves a siege of the Iranian Embassy in London.

Trust him, he's a professional...

Trust him, he’s a professional…

The sequence – and its obvious inspiration – represents a rare overlap between “things that the target audience for this film will recognise” and “acceptable villains in a big-budget American film.” The movie rushes along with enough speed that it never gets too bogged down by potentially suffocating subplots, or gives the audience enough time to question the workings of the movie’s physics or the logic of its plot points.

However, that lightness comes at a cost. The film never feels entirely grounded, the characters and their world never developed. For example, by the time we get a motivation for the villain’s actions, the movie is almost over. It feels like an after-thought, when it’s an idea that could have been shrewdly used to humanise a baddie who seems to be along because the producers didn’t count on McDonagh’s affable torture expert to make a convincing antagonist for Bruce and the gang.

Taking pot shots...

Taking pot shots…

Red 2 lacks focus. The movie introduces characters and concepts only to discard them with ease. For example, Catherine Zeta-Jones shows up for a couple of scenes as a sultry Russian agent who serves as Moses’ “kryptonite”, but she’s lost in the shuffle long before the movie’s climax. (And forgotten rather quickly.) The notion of a weapon of mass destruction painstakingly smuggled into the Kremlin piece-by-piece is a premise that could easily support its own espionage thriller – here it’s little more than window-dressing.

Nobody ever stops to catch their breath, and – despite Marvin’s constant refrains about how the group is all going to die – there’s never any substantial sense of peril for any of the lead characters. It’s more like a victory lap than a marathon for its seasoned performers, where it seems like the world is populated with exploding cars and disposable stunt doubles for our leads to plow through for two straight hours.

Things are heating up...

Things are heating up…

This lends Red 2 a weird charm. It’s decidedly comfortable with the mass carnage and collateral damage that our leads accrue while engaging in their hijinks. If the world around them seemed more substantial, the blasé attitude of our characters towards violence and brutality might seem off-putting. The movie’s lack of blood and graphic imagery is actually a strength, playing like a surreal live-action spy-film Looney Tune.

Thinking too hard about the consequences of our heroes actions could easily turn the film into a tonal misfire. Instead, this detachment plays as the movie’s best gag. Helen Mirren and John Malkovich in particular relish the opportunity to play gleefully nihilistic former spooks – the kind of people who don’t worry about where that car they flipped is going to land, and what that dead SWAT team officer’s family is going to do this Christmas.

Thinking outside the box...

Thinking outside the box…

Red 2 is hardly the deepest film around. However, it manages to prevent its weaknesses from becoming overwhelming. The title might stand for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”, but it could just as easily be Really Enjoyable Diversion.”

2 Responses

  1. Nice review Darren. The first one wasn’t anything special, but it looks like a work of art compared to this junk. Something was missing here, and rather than making up for it in a smart way, it just adds on random bits of comedy that do not work a single bit. They just continue and continue to be hammered in, and it gets old.

    • I don’t know. I liked it a lot more than the first one, which was just incredibly bland. I can’t forget anything except “Bruce Willis stepped out of a moving car” and “Morgan Freeman was dead but then not dead.” Red 2 was pretty far from perfect, but I thought the humour worked a lot better.

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