Friday, July 19, 2013

RED 2: Twice the goofiness

RED 2 (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for constant action and violence, frenetic gunplay and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang

This one’s a triumph of star power over script shortcomings.

RED 2 doesn’t even try for logic or verisimilitude; it’s a globe-trotting, live-action cartoon that does little but place its characters into improbable situations that prompt wry one-liners from the seasoned cast.

Having arrived in Moscow, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker, center) is annoyed to discover
that boyfriend Frank (Bruce Willis) and Russian agent Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones)
have some history ... and that Katja seems eager to resume their studies.
In most cases, that’s good enough ... because when the cast is this polished, and their comic timing so well established, we can’t help enjoying the result. Scripters Jon and Erich Hoeber have strayed even further afield from the original graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, but that really doesn’t matter. Films of this sort may be no more than a guilty pleasure, but there’s no denying the entertainment factor.

I’m sure 2010’s RED was envisioned as a one-off, but the global box-office must have been a pleasant surprise ... and we all know how Hollywood operates. On top of which, it probably wasn’t hard to persuade Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren to reprise their roles as aging former spies — RED stands for “retired, extremely dangerous” — who are granted yet another chance to show up their condescending younger colleagues.

Hoeber and Hoeber have reprised their scripting chores, but director Dean Parisot is a series newcomer, taking over for Robert Schwentke. It’s a good trade; Parisot helmed 1999’s cheeky sci-fi spoof, Galaxy Quest, so he clearly understands the tone required by this equally snarky franchise.

Having survived the events of their previous adventure, veteran spy Frank Moses (Willis) and girlfriend Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) are attempting to solidify their unlikely relationship. They’re crazy about each other, but that doesn’t seem to be enough; the protective Frank wants to ensure that Sarah remains out of harm’s way — rather difficult, given his history — while she pouts over the prospect of missing another dose of dangerous fun.

Be advised: Parker has one of the best pouts in the business. Parisot clearly understands the power of her stricken expressions, and finds ample opportunity to showcase them.

Alas, Frank isn’t destined for a quiet retirement. Paranoid best friend Marvin Boggs (Malkovich) barely has time to deliver a warning, before being blown up by Forces Unknown. Moments later, Frank is snatched by U.S. black ops thugs operating under orders from the malevolent Jack Horton (Neal McDonough, making the most of his deliciously nasty bad-guy role). Somehow, these events have something to do with a next-gen weapon code-named Nightshade: a remnant from Frank and Marvin’s Cold War past.

Frank manages to escape a fate worse than death, thanks to the timely intervention of Marvin, who merely faked his own demise as a distraction. (Come on; you didn’t expect Malkovich to check out in the first five minutes, did you?) Now well and truly vexed, Horton issues a termination order to contract killer Han Cho Bai (Byung Hun Lee), the “best in the world,” who cheerfully accepts this opportunity to settle his own old score with Frank.

Worse yet, our friends across the pond also get involved when MI6 instructs deadly sharpshooter Victoria (Mirren) to assassinate her former colleagues. The reason? Nightshade has been deemed a weapon of mass destruction, and Horton’s pesky U.S. colleagues have branded Frank and Marvin as terrorists.

Some days, it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed...

Subsequent skirmishes take Frank, Marvin and Sarah overseas to London, Paris and Moscow, along the way linking up with former Russian adversaries-turned-colleagues Ivan (Brian Cox) and Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The latter’s presence comes as an unpleasant surprise to Sarah, who is further irritated by the realization that Katja and Frank once were An Item.

But revenge is its own reward, and the overly enthusiastic — if aggressively foolish — Sarah will find plenty of opportunities to ignite jealousy’s green fire in Frank’s eyes.

All clues eventually lead to a befuddled scientist named Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), locked away for more than three decades under an ICE directive (“Incarcerate: Cannot exterminate”).

But the Nightshade plot, per se, is little more than a Hitchcockian MacGuffin: stuff and nonsense that serves merely to propel our characters from one ridiculous event to the next. Thus, our heroes drive crazily through the streets of Paris while trying to catch a wine-loving French spy known only as “The Frog” (David Thewlis), then attempt to break into a secret vault located beneath the Kremlin, then engineer an escape from a secret prison within the Tower of London, and then — for good measure — try to figure out how to wreak havoc within London’s Iranian Embassy.

On top of which, at every step of the way, the increasingly furious Han shows up again, leveling buildings and crippling various police-types while trying to ace Frank for good. Not since Burt Kwouk’s Cato stalked Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series, has an adversary so relentlessly pursued — and failed to finish off — a target.

One scarcely has time to catch one’s breath, which is precisely the point. As long as Parisot and editor Don Zimmerman keep things racing along, we don’t have time to question the ludicrous plot holes large enough to fly Han’s private plane through.

No matter: Everything is designed solely to encourage witty sniping between our leads, along with ample opportunities to juxtapose their age and assumed frailty, against the supposedly superior younger adversaries who pop up.

Willis and Parker maintain a steady level of mischievous banter, aiming for the wry sophistication delivered by classic film couples such as William Powell and Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Hoeber and Hoeber can’t always deliver dialogue quite that tart, but Willis gets plenty of mileage from Frank’s nervous, long-suffering worries over Sarah’s safety, while Parker blithely blunders from one hazardous scenario to another. Her giggly excitement is just as much fun as her wounded sulking.

Mirren does her own sulking, albeit more quietly, every time Victoria is confronted with some young snot who fails to appreciate her talents. The delight of Mirren’s performance comes from the way she sends up so many of her previous oh-so-serious roles, particularly one sequence where she gets to don a queen’s crown again.

Malkovich’s Marvin is funny merely by appearance, his daft clothes sense just as lunatic as his bemused double-takes. Malkovich is more of a goofball this time out, all traces of Marvin’s occasional bursts of sophistication having been left behind in the first film.

Lee delivers plenty of slick martial-arts moves as the exasperated Han, and Thewlis is a hoot as the deceptively mild Frog. Katja, alas, suffers from insufficient character development, even by this film’s flimsy standards; Zeta-Jones does little but purr like a Russian kitten.

Hopkins, as always, is a revelation, his take on Bailey fascinating in every respect. Hopkins may have established a new template for the “absent-minded professor” archetype, while (of course!) layering this performance with his rather unique approach to this intriguing character.

Alan Silvestri delivers an appropriately rousing orchestral score, while production designer Jim Clay has plenty of fun with the various locales. (One hopes the Kremlin isn’t easily accessible from an adjacent pizza joint, in real life.)

Granted, RED 2 is little more than empty calories: enjoyed today, forgotten tomorrow. But I suspect this film will enjoy an active home-video afterlife; it’ll be hard to resist spending more time with a seasoned cast having so much fun. And since RED 3 already has been announced — pending this initial sequel’s box-office results — we likely haven’t seen the last of Frank, Marvin, Victoria and Sarah.

Fine by me.

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