Red 2

2 out of 5

Directed by: Dean Parisot

I’ve lately been making my way through the glut of Lionsgate projects to which presumably Willis contracted himself sometime after the first ‘Red.’  While I can speculate as to the actor’s reasons for appearing in these flicks, and justify or criticize his performances in them as an extension of that, the only aspect I can really rally around as a fact – at least based on comments in those movies’ extras – is that Willis’ shooting time is generally one or two days.  Get in, shoot your scene, get out. He’s an inclusion in those movies for a headline credit, he’s not the star.  He’s not “cast.” Quality of the movies aside (some aren’t bad, but most of them… are), Bruce’s presence is very plug and play.  He adds nothing.

So it’s nice to emerge from those mired performances to watch the occasional flicks in which he’s actually acting and not just reciting.  Sure, Red 2’s a sequel so he’s not necessarily “cast” here either, but it’s still a different caliber of film (for him) that requires some commitment.  These occasions have produced some goodness (Looper, Moonrise Kingdom), but that’s not guaranteed.  Given that the original Red was a pretty much a blast, it’s a shame the followup can’t follow suit.  It’s a shiny mess; a good cast and slick production hindered by a ridiculously pointless plot and spectacularly odd editing.

Willis returns as ex-super agent Frank Moses, trying to lead the normal life after with girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) after the events of the first film.  Fellow super agent / wacko Marvin (John Malkovich) shows up minutes into the movie to spout off conspiracies, and soon enough we’re back in it, gathering the gang (Helen Mirren, Brian Cox) along with some new faces – Catherine-Zeta Jones, David Thewlis, Byung-hun Lee, Anthony Hopkins, Neal McDonough – many of whom are tasked with killing Frank, for a ridiculously simple-but-presented-convolutedly plot about a bomb.  While it’s true that movies of this type are just excuses for action sequences, if you’re not leaning heavily into comedy or parody but instead trying to maintain a story/character facade, a sense of consequence has to come from somewhere, and the way the film impossibly flits from location to location, one big bang scene to the next, desensitizes us to any possibility of that: these are invulnerable heroes; there is no danger, and we hardly care about whatever threat the Macguffin represents.

The editing underscores this, coming across as an attempt to punch up the thrills where none exist, or perhaps fit our aging cast into a more “youthful” seeming movie.  And I understand the drive behind that; Red partially kicked off or came at the start of the old-timers action movie trend, and Red 2 comes well after its nadir.  So with no zeitgeist to capture, the only option is to go the typical movie route of bigger and louder, but it’s just not the right formula here.  Although it could have been – as there are moments with some well choreographed cool stuff and Mirren became infinitely more convincing handling a gun in the interim – but these moments are hilariously spliced together with other scenes with discordant beats and completely different music themes, like the movie is a stitched together “best of” of an original film.

All of this sound and fury wings what’s otherwise the saving grace: The non action sequences.  Bruce as the lifer action star trying to lead a normal existence is not only fitting, but it gives him an outlet for his comedic befuddled persona, which is almost always entertaining.  Both Malkovich’s and Parker’s characters have slightly off comedic timing that causes funny jokes to skid when they could stick a landing, but it also adds a disarmingly humble charm that juxtaposes the movie’s volume.  McDonough is sorely under-utilized as a violence-loving flunky; the precious few minutes we check in with him offer glimpses of a fun, worthwhile villain who’s short-changed for bigger budget sequences. And Catherine Zeta-Jones seems to be having a good time with her seductress / ass-kicker bit, which translates on-screen.

Still, its good to see Willis up and acting, and the basic premise kicking around Red is a valid one… but perhaps next time out they’ll actually take advantage of that premise and not just stick our stars incongruously in the middle of a generic, slapdash-edited, big and boisterous action template.