RED 2 Makes the Case for Staying Retired

Can't Bruce Willis find a better use of his time than headlining old-guy action franchises?

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When Cary Grant accepted the romantic lead opposite Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen's 1963 film Charade, he expressed considerable concern that he was too old for the role: Grant turned 59 during filming; Hepburn was 33. So to put his mind at ease, several lines were added to the script to make it clear that she was the infatuated predator and he, merely her reluctant prey. The happy result was an all-time classic of the caper-comedy genre. (If you've never seen the film, seize the earliest opportunity to do so: Charade is the best Alfred Hitchcock movie ever made by someone who was not Alfred Hitchcock.) Grant made just two more pictures before retiring from the screen altogether at age 62.

Judging from the later-life careers of stars as disparate as Jack Nicholson and Woody Allen, we're past the point at which older male icons are likely to express any embarrassment at romancing much-younger co-stars. But can we at least agree, as a society, on an age at which actors should renounce automatic weapons? The idea of Getting the Old Gang Back Together for One Last Blowout isn't a new one. (To whit, Space Cowboys, back in 2000.) But of late the retirees-with-RPGs flick has quietly evolved into a whole subgenre of its own: the Expendables franchise, the extension of the Die Hard series, RED and its new sequel, RED 2.

In the midst of this particular phenomenon stands Bruce Willis--star of the latter two franchises and a co-star of the former--in all his Roman-nosed, shaven-headed glory. The actor is still on the tender side of 60 (he turned 58 in March), and he is self-evidently capable of kicking the asses of men considerably younger than himself. But at some point shouldn't he consider an alternative pastime? Willis can be a gifted, subtle performer, as he's recently displayed in such films as Moonrise Kingdomand Looper. But at just the moment in his career when one might expect him to explore his range, he's instead narrowed it disappointingly: His next five announced projects are another Die Hard, another Expendables, a sequel to Sin City, and two more movies--American Assassin and Expiration--in which he plays hit men. I'm all for showing the younger fellas how it's done, but surely there must be a limit. I can't be the only film-goer made nervous by the prospect of Die Hard With a Pension.

Which brings me, somewhat reluctantly, to RED 2 itself. Unlike many, I was not a fan of the first RED. But I suspect even those who enjoyed it will find their patience tested by this profoundly unnecessary sequel. As before, the gag is summed up in the title, which is spook-speak shorthand for "retired, extremely dangerous." Former black-ops superstar Frank Moses (Willis) is quietly minding his own business (this time out, "playing house" with the Mary-Louise Parker character he courted in the previous movie) when the lethal aftershocks of a decades-old mission abruptly arrive on his doorstep. Moses again reassembles his generationally compatible cohort of old spies (John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox), and together they treat us to just under two hours of escalating mayhem. Joining the festivities for this installment are Anthony Hopkins (a weapons scientist dubbed the "rock star of conceptual mass-killing" and "Da Vinci of death"); Catherine Zeta-Jones (a KGB agent and former paramour described as "Frank Moses's kryptonite"); and Lee Byung-hun ("the best contract killer in the world"--a title the film so wishes to emphasize that it bestows it on him twice, verbatim, in the span of five minutes).

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a secret nuclear device that the United States and Britain planted somewhere in Moscow in the late 1970s and, then--oops!--forgot all about. But such narrative details are secondary to the movie's recurring jokes, which are trundled out repeatedly and to diminishing effect: Willis wants to keep Parker safe, but she craves adventure; Parker is jealous of Zeta-Jones and so resolves to unleash her own awkward, inner Mata Hari; Cox gets turned on by watching Mirren shoot people; Malkovich is crazy (look! he's blowing up the toilets!); and, of course, they're all old.

Throughout, the entire cast seems only superficially committed to the enterprise at hand--though, in fairness, it's hard to imagine what even the most inspired performer could make of such lines as "Frank, you haven't killed anyone in months" and "What happens in the Kremlin stays in the Kremlin." The direction (by Dean Parisot) is competent but unimaginative, and the body count, while never graphic, is childishly excessive. Despite a few moments of moderate wit--most of them in the early going--RED 2 inadvertently makes the case that, for franchises as well as spooks, sometimes retirement really is the best option.