By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
August 1, 2013
Prologue: About a million years ago, contemplating my mortality whilst driving across the Neversink River in New York State, I glanced over to my wife Joanne and opined that Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones might one day entertain us at some old age home. “Cool!” was her automatically optimistic response. I was heartened. The moment replayed as I watched director Dean Parisot’s “Red 2.” I surmise a connection.
Unless your memory isn’t what it used to be, you’ll recall that the first “Red” (2010), about an assorted selection of retired secret agents impressed back into action, waxed entertainingly about its subjects’ enduring vitality and validity. They shot ‘em up like gangbusters, effusively bantering along their merry way. A good cast of relatively aged actors dedicated to dismissing a buffet of stereotypes about the latest Medicare generation made it good fun.
But this reprise, bereft of the novelty factor and weak of script, pushes too hard, resultantly suffering all the aches and pains of advanced sequelitis. Again trying to rescue humankind, this time from a rogue scientist’s portable nuclear bomb, our graying crew employs all the usual modes of devastation. Pity is, it’s generic fodder, Action Formula #101, lifted right off the old shelf.
Granted, Bruce Willis as Frank, the killing machine from whence the franchise gets its title (Retired Extremely Dangerous), carries the recycled idea further than it deserves via his signature glibness. His tongue planted so firmly in cheek that ancient mariners might have chosen that constant instead of the North Star to guide their way, he is blessed with a teasing likeability. While you’re not quite sure where Frank is coming from, you never doubt he’s one of the good guys.
Of course forget about trying to explain what lurks within the cerebral catacombs of Marvin, his partner in derring-do psycho-comically portrayed by John Malkovich. The paranoid victim of CIA LSD experimentation is an oxymoron unto himself. Yet, for all the absurdity Frank and Marvin embody, Messrs. Willis and Malkovich are nonetheless facile enough in their interpretations to have us believing they are indeed best friends.
That they are complemented by truly thespic royalty in the persona of Helen Mirren’s Victoria, the veritable black widow of female covert operatives, lends this geriatric fantasy yet more reason for suspension of disbelief. Conversely, most of the ancillary crew cancel out that justification.
Especially egregious is Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah, Frank’s main squeeze since their acquaintance and subsequent life-and-death convolutions in episode #1. Playing the significant other as amateur cloak-and-dagger gal, she originally lent a soupcon of cute, which here overstays its welcome. Ideally, the role requires the sort of iconic, stand-alone wit and élan Myrna Loy personified in the “Thin Man.” As Senator Lloyd Bentsen might have been moved to inform Parker’s now annoying presence, “You’re no Nora Charles.”
Not to belabor the point—although her painful depiction certainly deserves some critical revenge— I can’t remember the last time one specific performance was so fully responsible for ruining a film. Channeling Poe, I have nothing against the woman. She never wronged me. I think it is her silly smile, that voice. Yes, it is that.
But it’s not all her fault. The entire premise is based on the chimera that the troika of Baby Boomers still has what it takes to preserve truth, justice and the American way. Yet, along the way to extolling Frank’s undeniable love for the Kansan-turned-Mata Hari, the plot contradictorily implies the gang couldn’t save the world without its junior partner.
Less objectionable, probably due in large part to her comeliness, is Catherine Zeta-Jones as Katja, Frank’s Russian counterpart and former heartthrob. We’re unsure where her loyalty lies…but not really. And, though displaying flourishes of his dramatic greatness, Anthony Hopkins’s genius bad guy, the bomb-inventing Dr. Bailey is, alas, no Hannibal Lecter. Partially ameliorating this shortcoming in the villainy department, Neal McDonough is adequately distasteful as Jack Horton, the duplicitous CIA agent.
But, lest this review takes the shape of an apology owing largely to the zanily convivial, Willis-Malkovich pairing, it behooves to stress that even they can’t rise above this mishmash rehash delivered in perfunctory, cookie cutter fashion. Its potential squandered by poor writing and ineffectual supporting stints, “Red 2” is irrefutable proof that there shouldn’t be a “Red 3.”
Postscript: And so, if in the hopefully far distant future a survey delivered with my dinner, just to the right of the Jell-O, asks me to check whether I’d prefer to see “Red 2” or the visiting Rolling Stones in the game room come Saturday night, I’m confident of my choice.
“Red 2,” rated PG-13, is a Summit Entertainment release directed by Dean Parisot and stars Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker and John Malkovich. Running time: 116 minutes