Movie Reviews August 2013
Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Rated PG-13/116 mins/Action/Thriller
Director: Dean Parisot
Writers: Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber, based on the DC Comic created by Warren Ellis & Cully Hamner
I walked out of 2010's Red having gotten pretty much what I expected: a decent action flick with possibly the single greatest cast ever assembled for what was, ultimately, a paycheck movie. It was a very good paycheck movie, but the situations, action and plot were fairly generic. Nevertheless, to watch such a stunning array of high-caliber talent in one film was well worth the price of admission, particularly actors you just don't expect to see together--Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Mirren, and Brian Cox (not to mention the always great Karl Urban, Mary Louise Parker, and a brilliant cameo from the late, great Ernest Borgnine, in one of his final roles). I enjoyed the film, but it didn't really stick with me.
So it was with the absolute expectation "more of the same" that I subjected myself to Red 2. With most of the cast from the first film returning for the sequel, along with newcomers Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones (solid enough replacements for Freeman and Dreyfuss), I figured, worst case, at the very least it'd be another chance to see these diverse performers play off one another again.
Boy, was I wrong--in the best possible way. My expectations were not only met, they were exceeded. In spades. Red 2 not only improves on the original on every level, it could very easily--with a few tweaks--stand on its own as an excellent espionage thriller rather than a sequel based on an obscure comic book.
As good as it is, the story doesn't bear much comment. Willis is Frank, a retired agent who's spent a lifetime infiltrating, destroying and killing the enemy--all in the name of his country. Now wallowing in suburbia with lovely girlfriend Sarah (Parker), his new and uneasy tranquility is (hilariously) shattered by the "death" of best friend/fellow agent Marvin (Malkovich). From there, it's a race against time and the elements as Frank and his posse are marked for death by their own government, implicated in a black op they were involved in 35 years before--one that none of them remember being a part of. The movie takes us from Tokyo to London, Moscow, Paris and Iran, as our heroes try to clear their names and find out who's really behind the scandal they are being scapegoated for.
One aspect of Red 2 that impresses is how it reflects the current geopolitical climate, so much that the specific event that triggers the story is the release of a Wikileaks document--a clever integration of the modern world into what is otherwise a pretty old-fashioned spy/action movie. But there is a frightening aspect to this as well: seeing government and military figures at the highest levels frame, blackmail, torture and kill one another, be they friend or foe, ally or countryman, with complete impunity and no accountability (or conscience) whatsoever, is nothing short of chilling. One gets the uncomfortable impression that far from being a mere Hollywood contrivance, the inner workings of the real-world organizations on which these are based may be every bit as sinister as those shown in the film--if not more so.
Such weighty considerations aside, the cast does some of their best work ever. Willis and Malkovich play off each other like they really have been partners for decades. Parker is a complete delight--how have I not really noticed her before?--while Mirren truly makes you believe that yes, she can kill someone as casually as having afternoon tea. And Catherine Zeta-Jones is positively smoldering as Willis's ex-lover/worst frenemy. Even smaller roles, such as an informant called "The Frog" (Harry Potter's David Thewlis) and Glenn Beck lookalike Neal McDonough as a ruthless US agent, make an impression. And for the second time this year (after G.I. Joe), Byung-hun Lee (as assassin Han) shows himself to be nothing less than an irresistible force of nature. This guy needs to be a leading man in an American film, pronto. He's astounding.
But my personal highlight was seeing Royal Shakespeare Company veterans Cox and Hopkins share the screen--Cox having been the first actor to have ever portrayed Hannibal Lecter, in 1986's Manhunter, but who declined to reprise the role for the followup film, opening the door for Hopkins' Oscar-winning portrayal in 1991's Silence of the Lambs. You can tell that these actors bring their personal history to their interaction, and it's all the richer--and more fun--for it.
And that's the bottom line: Red 2 is just plain fun to watch. That it's also smart is a bonus. Not bad for a paycheck sequel.
Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Rated PG-13/96 mins/Action/Comedy
Director: Robert Schwentke
Writers: David Dobkin, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, based on the Dark Horse Comic by Peter M. Lenkov
The advertising for this movie practically writes itself: "You put your Ghostbusters in my Men In Black!" "No, you put your Men In Black in my Ghostbusters!" "Wait, maybe these two great tastes, taste great together!"
In other words, there's nothing new here except the mixture.
But surprisingly, it's not a terrible mixture. With those two movies as counterpoints, along with more than a little bit of Evil Dead and a touch of the forgotten 1980 Chevy Chase/Benji classic, Oh! Heavenly Dog, R.I.P.D. manages to feel comfortably familiar, but still moderately entertaining. (Apparently, this was based on a Dark Horse comic, albeit one I've never heard of. Never having read it, I can make no comparison to its source material.)
So it goes like this: Boston cop Nick (Ryan Reynolds), suffering a crisis of conscience after doing something he shouldn't have, gets killed in the line of duty, and is sent to a sort of purgatory, where he's given the option of eternal judgment, or redeeming himself by going back to earth as part of the "Rest In Peace Department"--dead cops who monitor those bad souls who manage to slip through the afterlife's bureaucratic cracks, and haunt the earth with their own nefarious agendas. He's paired up with crusty cowboy Roy (Jeff Bridges), a veteran officer with an ornery, independent streak who certainly doesn't want a rookie partner.
From that point, it rarely strays from formula. All of the ensuing buddy-cop clichés are straight out of the book. So are most of the supernatural gags. And a "twist" involving Nick's earthly partner (Kevin Bacon) is so blatantly obvious, you guess it the second he appears on screen.
But none of that detracts. And the movie does have a few genuinely witty moments. Bridges' character seems to be an amalgam of past roles, including the Dude and Rooster Cogburn, but it works because it's so weird (not least in his bizarre ankle fetish). He has a real chemistry with both Reynolds and heavenly administrator Proctor (Mary Louise-Parker). Reynolds plays Nick with an earnestness that almost seems out of place. The usually solid Kevin Bacon seems a bit more low-key here, but at least he resists the temptation to do a Mark Wahlberg impression. And the conceit of the two dead officers being perceived by the living as completely incongruous avatars--an old Chinese man for Reynolds, a tall, hot, blonde model for Bridges--is actually pretty funny. It's too bad they didn't do more with that.
The Apocalyptic ending is pretty much what you expect, although it takes its place along with all the other recent massive-urban-destruction movies (Pacific Rim, Man of Steel and last year's Avengers). But the movie saves its one real surprise for the dénouement, involving Reynolds' relationship with his widowed wife. I admit, I expected a different outcome, and was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.
I predict a moderate but passionate cult following once it's out on DVD. And why not? Strictly on its own merits, it's an entertaining and amusing movie. It's not great, but it doesn't ask for much, it provides a few real laughs, and despite its derivative nature, it's true to itself and can be enjoyed on its own terms. It's just a shame they couldn't find more ways to exploit such an inherently interesting premise, because given its budget and projected business, it's unlikely to get a sequel. Which is almost, but not quite, a shame.
GROWN UPS 2
Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Rated PG-13/101 mins/Comedy
Director: Dennis Dugan
Writers: Adam Sandler, Fred Wolf, Tim Herlihy
The night that Grown Ups 2 opened, I had a reunion with the group of friends I spent most of the 90s with, but who had since drifted apart. It had been a long time since we'd seen each other, and I toyed with the idea of saying, "Hey guys, let's go see Grown Ups 2!" After all, the film--the sequel to 2010's Grown Ups--featured three of the bright lights from early 90s Saturday Night Live. That's the era in which this particular group of friends and I bonded. We quoted these guys' SNL lines all the time. So it seemed like a perfect fit to make the suggestion--a dual reconnection with my earlier days.
Boy, was I wrong.
There are bad movies, and there are bad movies, and then there's Grown Ups 2. I've honestly been wracking my brain to try to find something good to say about it, and I keep coming up dry. It's bad in so many ways, on so many levels, that it may be the worst movie I've ever seen. It is absolutely empty, shallow, heartless, gutless, nutless, phone-it-in, lazy comedy at its most extreme.
For those who may have missed the first one...childhood friends played by Adam Sandler, David Spade, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, and Kevin James (recruited as a suitably hefty but otherwise inadequate stand-in for the late, great Chris Farley) reconnect in their childhood hometown. Cue the wacky antics, exploits and shenanigans, including the inevitable heartwarming "family" moments with the wives and kids, the run-in with the old high school rival, etc, and the ultimate resolution--"Hey, it's been so great to visit, so let's move back home!" It was utterly sophomoric, absolutely predictable, and completely forgettable, but it was fun to see these guys riffing off each other again, because you can tell they so clearly loved each other and missed working together.
But whatever marginal redeeming value the original film had on that level is thoroughly absent here. Within the first three minutes, which feature a runaway moose, a shower-piss gag, and "naughty" use of Sandler's wife's lingerie, you know you're in for a ride of the very worst possible kind--and it's all downhill. I can't think of one gag, one joke, one line that elicited so much as a genuine chuckle from me. And I'm no snob, either. It just wasn't funny. At a certain point, it just became a game of "Spot the SNL cameos." (In the process, finally answering Stewie's eternal question: Will they ever find a suitable vehicle for Ellen Cleghorne?) Everyone from Jon Lovitz to Cheri Oteri drops in for a scene or two. (I was surprised not to see Julia Sweeney in it. Then again, she probably has more taste than that.)
The movie looks like it was probably a lot of fun to make, but it's sheer agony to watch. You can tell that this was just one giant paycheck for all concerned. What bothers me most, of course, is that I expect more from these guys. (Well, maybe not David Spade.) In their day, these were some of the funniest guys on earth, and I still think that of Chris Rock. And Sandler's co-writers, Fred Wolf and Tim Herlihy, have produced some genuinely classic material. So WTF happened here? More to the point: what does it say when Rob Schneider sits out a paycheck? I just hope to gods there's no Grown Ups 3.
In any case, I sure am glad I didn't end up suggesting to my friends that we check the movie out. I want to keep them. We had such a great time reconnecting, we're going to do it again in a few months. I have the feeling that had we gone to see the movie at my suggestion, I wouldn't be invited to the next reunion.