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Ebiri on Red 2: No Movie With This Much Ass-Kicking Should Feel So Lifeless

(L-R) MARY-LOUISE PARKER, BRUCE WILLIS and JOHN MALKOVICH star in RED 2Ph: Jan Thijs© 2013 Summit Entertainment, LLC.  All rights reserved.

If the very idea of aging, respected actors going “chuk-chuk” as they pump shotguns makes you titter with glee, then by all means don’t let me stop you from seeing Red 2, because it certainly delivers on that score. What some of us call the Fallacy of the Profane Grandpa — older actors saying and doing wacky, nasty things — has been around forever. (Alan Arkin won an Oscar for it not too long ago.) Now we have the Fallacy of the Locked and Loaded Grandpa (and Grandma). It’s a gag that wore out its welcome long ago; I vaguely recall laughing back in 1993, when Hard Target featured a slow-motion shot of Wilford Brimley riding away in slo-mo from an exploding house. Today it’s just another thing.

In case you didn’t know, RED is a code name that stands for “Retired and Extremely Dangerous.” In the previous film, ex-CIA guy Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) was just trying to retire in peace when he got roped into a cloak-and-dagger adventure alongside Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), a lovely, unwitting pension fund customer service rep. Now they’re living together, and Frank still wants a quiet life, albeit a paranoid one where they never go out or do anything interesting — certainly nothing that might arouse suspicion. So when old black-ops pal Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) comes to drag Frank into a new adventure, Sarah, who is bored out of her skull, wants to join in. It turns out that back during the height of the Cold War, the U.S. found a way to sneak a nuclear weapon into the heart of Moscow. Now someone wants to set it off, and some other people want to claim it for their own purposes. To complicate matters, MI6 has sicced expert assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren) after Frank and team. And there’s a deadly, younger Chinese agent Han Jo-bae (Lee Byung-hun) after them, too, which means there will be lots of martial arts alongside the borderline-geriatric gunplay.

The plot of Red 2 is surprisingly convoluted, but plot here is about as important as it was in Grown Ups 2. The real idea is that there are worse things you can do than spend time in the presence of such luminaries as Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins, David Thewlis, and Brian Cox, as they goof around with this sort of material. The first Red had the same basic idea, too. But it also had a jaunty energy and some surprising visual flair, probably courtesy of director Robert Schwentke, an underrated stylist. Now with comedy veteran Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest, Fun with Dick and Jane) at the helm, the new one is more about the jokes. It’s funnier than its predecessor, but also less human. Willis and Parker, who had some decent chemistry in the earlier film, are blander this time around. The script doesn’t give them much to do with one another besides bicker; otherwise, they seem to just be along for the ride. But there are some nice touches, too. As before, Malkovich makes for excellent comic relief, and there’s a mildly adorable ongoing romance between Mirren’s British assassin and Brian Cox’s ex-Russian secret agent. (Also, Dame Helen looks awfully fetching in camouflage.)

But no movie with this much ass-kicking should feel so lifeless. Nothing in Red 2 is actively offensive, but for the most part, it’s hard to really care for anything that’s happening to these characters. The compositions are so drab that when the onscreen transitions come — in which the action freezes into a comic-book frame and then swishes toward whatever foreign destination our characters are headed next —  the movie seems to be commenting on its own visual flatness. Oh, who am I kidding? Why even try? Old people! Guns! Chuk-chuk!

Photo: Jan Thijs/Summit Entertainment