First things first: I realize that I bring great shame and dishonor to my family name with that headline.
Old soldiers never die, they just appear in the second and inevitable third installments of a franchise nobody asked for a sequel to to begin with. Exhibit A, RED 2, directed by Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) starring Bruce Willis (Hudson Hawk), John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich), and Mary Louise-Parker (Weeds) barrels into theaters this weekend. The original RED (released in 2010) was an adaptation of the limited run comic series by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer, about a retired black ops CIA agent (in RED’s universe, RED stands for Retired, Extremely Dangerous) who is hunted by his former handlers.
In the sequel, Frank Moses (Willis) is content with post black-ops life, going on shopping trips to Costco with girlfriend Sarah Ross (Parker), and not killing anyone. Moses is reluctantly drawn back into the business of saving the world after Moses and Marvin Boggs (Malkovich) are accused of nuclear terrorism. What occurs after that is an hour and fifty-six minute vacuum of scenes shuffled across the globe, stitched together by gratuitous, gratuitous use of on-screen legend, wedged within a plot that can only be described as convoluted, at best.
I can tell you that nuclear weapons and governments trying to clean/cover up after ghosts from the Cold War are involved, and nearly everyone wears a series of unfortunate hats. I should also take the opportunity to mention that Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers, Justified) plays a supporting role as a US agent hunting down Moses and Boggs throughout the film. I liked to think he was channeling his season three character from Justified, Robert Quarles. Minus the whole anal rampage bit (watch season three of Justified to find out).
“But Paolo! Who cares about the plot? How is the action? Why can’t you appreciate something for what it is?” Well, I would if I could. If I were to enter a Stockholm Syndrome state, where I gave myself over to the whims of the filmmaker and enjoyed the action sequences are mindless entertainment, I would have. When the viewer isn’t exposed to scenes involving info-dumps, the internet as exposition, or introducing some new confusing layer to an already confusing plot, RED 2’s action sequences are staid and pedestrian. The clunky editing on serves to slow the action down even further.
Props to Parker, who is the best thing about RED 2. Former customer service agent in the first film, now lover to ex-spook Willis, Parker’s Sarah jumps at the chance to go out in the field with Moses and Boggs, despite Moses’ extreme reservations. And maybe while saving the world from annihilation, she can use this as impromptu couples therapy? I really appreciate Sarah being written as a female compatriot, who does not harpy-scream and shout at her man’s line of work, but is implicit, willing, and wild eyed. Which was of course refreshing when everyone else in the cast was supposed to play battle-hardened killers.
Here’s where the problem lies. The chemistry between Willis and Parker is non-existent. The closest we get to them knowing they are in a relationship are with them ending their sentences to each other with BABE. BAAAABBBEE. BABBBBEEEE. Willis’ determination to protect Parker from Dat Life ™ doesn’t come off as a man wanting to protect his significant other, but rather a father protecting his daughter. Which makes those scenes play off with an incredibly creepy subtext. And casts Parker as a kind of Penny from Inspector Gadget role. Parker is the closest character to have an arc in this film, but when she does get a taste of what Dat Life ™ can do to a person’s psyche at the film’s climax, it’s swept under the rug at the film’s denouement.
Willis, in all his grimacing, is an anchor on this movie. And not in a ‘Willis is the central character’ way either (although that isn’t wrong). Willis is a literal boat anchor, weighing down every scene he is in. While all the other actors perform workman-like performances (Dame Helen Mirren ranks second on my acting power rankings in this movie), Willis’ performance reminds me of someone who doesn’t want to play along when people try to do bits with him.
Catherine Zeta-Jones (Side Effects) plays a Russian intelligence officer who had a long-ago fling with Willis’ Moses, injecting some tension into the romantic subplot. Helen Mirren (Hitchcock) returns as Victoria, an assassin who is contracted by MI6 to dispatch Moses and Boggs. Lee Byung-hun (G.I. Joe Retaliation) plays Han, another assassin contracted by Neal McDonugh’s character. Byung-hun ranked third in my power rankings for this film for style, quips, having a private jet, and reminding me of the paperboy from Better Off Dead. Rounding out the cast is Anthony Hopkins, who pulls out every single British mannerism stereotype in the book for this role. Also, cameo appearances by Pringles and Papa John’s Pizza.
One could imagine or argue that RED 2 is an allegory for aging baby boomers being forced into retirement and trying to still prove that they still got it. Or one could just argue that this was a movie that didn’t even need to be made in the first place.