Red 2: In the past few years, the availability of aging movie stars and smaller film companies willing and able to package them together has resulted in a bizarre if not unwelcome genre: the Old People Kicking Ass Thriller. This genre comes in a variety of niches, like 80s action bruisers with their upstart pals (the Expendables series); 70s tough guys (Stand-Up Guys); and prestige-actor potpourri, the grab-bag approach of Red. That 2010 film starred sometime Expendable Bruce Willis, yes, but the rest of the cast looked like something out of one of those good, non-action-y Bruce Willis movies: Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, and Brian Cox all play former spooks qualified as Retired, Extremely Dangerous. Here’s another fun fact about Red: I don’t have any more fun facts about Red because I remember almost nothing about it. I know it was something of a word-of-mouth hit and I vaguely recall enjoying its light touch, but it did not linger in my mind.
Willis and company, though, are betting on fonder memories of the movie than mine for Red 2, the chief audience for which seems to be: (1) people who really, really loved Red and (2) people who have not seen many movies before—certainly not movies with the temerity to mix comedy and action together as one thing! The new movie picks up with Frank Moses (Willis) and civilian love interest Sarah Ross (Mary Louise-Parker) enjoying their domesticity at CostCo—only she’s actually kind of bored, and he’s straining to keep her safe, especially after the batty Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) turns up to warn them about an impending frame job. It seems that Frank and Marvin have been named in some “chatter” as conspirators in a Cold War bomb plot they know nothing about, which sets all manner of bad guys on their tail. To elude them, the semi-retirees globe-hop from one city to another, spending a particular amount of time in Paris. The Paris scenes were shot on location, which places the blame for their chintzy, overlighted look squarely at the feet of the filmmakers.
That Paris is an impossibly beautiful city may be the key to why it looks so crummy in this movie: nothing impossible-looking in Red 2 also looks cool. Rather than offering back-to-basics ass-kicking, the movie goes cutesy and computer-y, fudging the kind of stunts better movies (like, say, Furious 6) bother to fake at least semi-convincingly, and expecting us to delight at the mere sight of Bruce Willis’s stunt double punching and jumping, or Helen Mirren shooting two guns in slow motion in a computerized spinning car (see again: for people who don’t see many movies). But the thing is, Helen Mirren shooting two guns in slow motion is not inherently more interesting than anyone else shooting two guns in slow motion. It’s as cheap a special effect as any.
The movie does have a more genuinely physical action performer in Byung-hun Lee, who plays a character repeatedly hyped as the “best contract killer in the world.” This designation is meant to explain why following an extremely stealthy (if still wildly over-the-top) introductory murder, his keen, world-beating attacks include blasting a Gatling gun through dozens of cars on a public street in Paris while screaming, and coming at Frank unarmed for an elaborate fistfight. At least Lee’s fight moves have some ferocity—and in the final stretch of the film he turns out to be pretty decent at deadpan comedy, too.
Neither of his skills is fully utilized because as action spy thriller, Red 2 is rote and as a winking comedy, it’s pretty stale, too. Apart from Malkovich’s crazy-man clowning and some enjoyable muttering from new slumming prestige actor Anthony Hopkins, much of the humor is meant to stem from the movie’s jaunty approach to sudden murders. Movies like The Lone Ranger may garner negative attention for the amount of carnage they can fit into a PG-13 rating, but Red 2 uses its body count as the laziest of punchlines to faux-jokes that amount to Willis killing people, or the bad guys killing poor unsuspecting unnamed characters, or one guy who looks like he’s going to kill another guy getting killed by the first guy, or a third guy, or a fourth guy. It’s a comedic style that can be summed up as: Surprise! You’re dead! Not only is this technique numbing, it muddles the climax of the movie, when we’re presumably supposed to care about whether Frank, Marvin, and Sarah survive and “save the world” (a phrase fliply invoked over and over, even though it never seems like the spies are saving more than, at best, a city or two; more often, their own skin) and the movie can’t decide to what degree it’s joking around.
Mary-Louise Parker’s Sarah bears the worst of the movie’s atonal comic sensibility. She’s positioned as excited by Frank’s violent world-“saving” adventures, much to Frank’s protective chagrin; when it actually comes time for her to jump in on the action and shoot bad guys, the movie toys with the idea of this causing trauma, then brushes it off, not wanting to spoil the fun of killing. There’s also a metatextual element that sours Parker’s screwball energy: Sarah is so infatuated with the movie’s clumsy version of action-adventure that she comes off as kind of stupid for enjoying the events of Red 2 so much. Maybe she hasn’t seen many movies, either.
And at the risk of sounding like an old man myself: I have, and I remember when stars ruminated on the aging process with roles like Paul Newman’s in Nobody’s Fool, or Clint Eastwood’s in, well, anything, but let’s say In the Line of Fire or Space Cowboys. Willis, Mirren, Malkovich, Parker, and Hopkins all deserve better than this smug ass-kicking.