Paranoid assassin Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), thrill-seeking former government clerk Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), and retired CIA super-spook Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) are on the run again from assassins, spies, double agents, and mad scientists in Red 2, the even more over the top follow-up to the over the top action-adventure comedy Red. Willis’ goofy t-shirt and goofier expression signal the stylistic and tonal differences between the original and the sequel.
Whatever Red did with one shot of John Malkovich deadpanning evidence of insanity, Red 2 does with twenty.
Whatever Red did subtly and slyly to get laughs, Red 2…doesn’t do. Subtltety and slyness are not among its virtues.
None of these comparisons are damning criticisms of Red 2. They're statements of stylistic and tonal difference. Red 2 isn't more of the same. It's just plain more. Red was a relatively modest action-adventure comedy that moved along with patience, allowing its charms and surprises to sneak up on you as it built towards its over the top final shootout. Red 2's director Dean Parisot, taking over the franchise from Red's Robert Schwentke, assumes that since we've already been charmed and surprised, we're ready to laugh at what previously charmed and surprised us. In effect, he's made Red 2 an affectionate spoof of Red.
Red was hardly realistic, but it started out by grounding itself in the real world or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. When we first meet recently and uneasily retired CIA operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), he appears to be an average middle-aged single guy feeling bored and lonely as he tries to start his life over in a non-descript suburb in Anywheresville, USA.
If we didn't know better, when we see him on the phone awkwardly and embarrassedly inventing excuses to keep the conversation going with Sarah, a clerk in the government pension office (played by a cute and fluffy Mary-Louise Parker smoothing off all the hard edges she'd developed over the years on Weeds), herself as bored and lonely as Frank, we could be be fooled into thinking we're watching the opening of a Nora Ephron-esque romantic comedy or, at any rate, a Hitchcock-inspired mystery-romance.
Our first clue that Frank isn't your average lonely single guy is that he clearly has no clue as to how to fit into his new neighborhood. In fact, not only wherever he's come from it wasn't the burbs, he wasn't following the calendar either and he's surprised to realize it's Christmastime, which only dawns on him when he notices his is the only house on the block without any decorations.
Our second clue is the team of ski-masked assassins who show up in the night and shoot the house to pieces in an attempt to kill Frank.
Frank, as if we hadn't guessed, turns out to have a dangerous past and it's now catching up with him.
This connection to reality, stretched thin as it was, allowed Schwentke to play for small stakes. Frank's only objective was to keep himself and Sarah, who of course got caught up in the adventure, alive long enough to find out who wants them dead and thwart them. The fact the world of Red included people who could kill an agent as competent and dangerous in his own right as Frank was enough to create anxiety and suspense and kept the simple and straight-forward plot humming along.
Parisot doesn't worry about reality. He takes his cues from the graphic novels the movies are based on. Things happen because they make for exciting visuals. Characters exist to carry the plot from one exciting visual to another. In Red, the central villain was a cowardly politician desperate to maintain his viability as a potential Presidential candidate by covering up a war crime he committed as a young marine in Central America in the 1980s. In Red 2, once again, fallout from from a mission from Frank's past threatens his and Sarah's lives, but while in Red the mission had a historical basis that gave the film a plot that could have come out of a novel by Ross Thomas or Elmore Leonard, in Red 2 the mission and with it the chief villain, a cackling mad scientist seeking to wreek vengeance on the world, are straight out of Ian Fleming.
Red 2 begins with the premise that after all he and Sarah went through in Red, Frank has decided he wants the boring suburban life he seemed almost relieved to have had to flee at the beginning of Red. Not just for his own peace and quiet though. He thinks a house in the suburbs---well-stocked and equipped in one trip to Costco, where the movie opens and the relentless product placement gets underway---will be a safe haven for Sarah too. He's so spooked by the possibility that more ghosts from his past will pop up to threaten her that he's ignoring the fact she'd enjoy that.
It turns out that Sarah, having lived the suburban dream Frank's trying to hide them both in, is cheerfully addicted to the the new life of danger and adventure Frank accidentally dragged her into in Red.
Frank's refusal to take her opinion on the matter seriously gives Sarah the excuse to stay mad at him for most of the movie and punish him passively and aggressively as they run from shootout to shootout and gives John Malkovich back as Frank's ultra-paranoid sidekick, Marvin, countless occasions to give the two couples counseling on the fly---his advice is remarkably clear-headed, practical, and insightful for a psychopath.
At any rate, before Frank can check out of Costco with his new gas grill, Marvin pops up with the news that the ghosts are already on the loose, a plot to kill the three of them is underway, and they'd better get moving right away to hunt down the villains behind or else. Immediately, or else happens. Bullets start flying, cars blow up in the parking lot, Marvin is killed (I'm not spoiling anything by telling you not really), Frank and Sarah are captured by rogue CIA agents, Bruce Willis gets to re-enact all the Die Hard movies in the space of three minutes inside a storeroom, Marvin returns with a kidnapped Army intelligence officer in the trunk of his car, and then things really get rolling.
The chase is international this time and takes the gang to Paris, to London, to Moscow, and back to London. Along the way they reunite with their old comrade in arms, the quasi-retired MI6 secret agent Victoria Winslow--- Helen Mirren here given the chance to show Daniel Craig how it's done, and now that I think about, how great would it have been if she'd turned up in one of Timothy Dalton's Bonds as a fellow Double 0?---trade bullets, bombs, and barbs with Byung-hun Lee as yet another ghost with a grudge from Frank's past, team up with Catherine Zeta-Jones as still another ghost, this one carrying a torch as well as nursing a grudge---Marvin unhelpfully describes her to Sarah as "Frank's kryptonite", giving Sarah another reason to be mad at Frank and torture him, jealousy---and come to the rescue of Antony Hopkins as the most absent-minded professor in movie history.
Brian Cox returns as Ivan, Victoria's once and again Russian lover, to reveals he has a foot fetish Victoria is willing to indulge as long as it doesn't distract from her sharpshooting. Morgan Freeman's character is gone. Ernest Borgnine is really gone. Neal McDonough replaces Karl Urban as the bad guys' go-to guy for Frank Moses elimination. Urban's character was meant to be something of a version of Frank's younger self but one who's made the mistake of thinking he can have the safe suburban life at the same time he's working as essentially a paid assassin, a mistake that puts a strain on his conscience which Frank exploits and further grounds Red in reality. McDonough's Jack Horton is simply a maniacally grinning legman without conscience, scruples, or connection to reality. He's straight out of Comicbookland, which works because it's McDonough, who, with his ice blue eyes, slashing grin, rocky jaw, and, as it's described by a rival bad guy on Justified, giant baby's head, looks like he was designed by God to play comic book characters come to life.
A favorite British character actor of mine turns up as a charismatic French aesthete, oenophile, and double agent and I'm still mad at myself for not recognizing him. The whole time he was on screen I kept saying to myself, I know that guy! I know that guy! Turns out I did know that guy. Titus Welliver has a funny and uncredited cameo, and him I recognized.
Mary-Louise Parker was more believable when her character was more believable. In Red, Sarah started out as an average cubicle worker daydreaming about the sort of romantic adventure Frank gets her caught up in who then can't get her head around the twin facts that of course among the retired government workers she helped sort out pension problems there'd be a former CIA agent or two and that her daydreams had become real.
That normalcy and disbelief defined Sarah, but she's cured of both at the beginning of Red 2. Trouble is there isn't much else left of her. Parker tries to make up for the deficit with an excess on cuteness.
Willis' job in Red was to surprise Sarah and the bad guys with the fact that he was Bruce Willis and to be the one who kept his---and our focus---on the seriousness of the trouble Frank and Sarah were in while the eccentrics around him eccentrified. He was helped in this by Morgan Freeman and Karl Urban.
But as I mentioned Freeman and Urban are gone, McDonough's playing a comic book character, the trouble isn't serious because it's too outrageous, and Frank is too distracted by his domestic problems to focus anyway. Without Willis and Parker centering things, the plot seems to run away with itself, getting more and more out of control as it barrels along. To make matters worse, instead of playing straight man to the eccentrics, this time out Willis joins them in Eccentricville.
Willis does many things well as an actor, but eccentrifying isn't one of them. Here he doesn't come off as eccentric as much as just plain goofy.
It might have been funnier if instead of reaching for laughs by making Frank less of the super-spook he was in Red, Parisot and his screenwriters Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber had taken advantage of the opportunities they'd provided themselves with in the forms of those ghosts from his past, Lee and Zeta-Jones, to show us, and Sarah, that Frank is an even more super super-spook than we thought, a real Matt Helm or Derek Flint.
Developed, this might have given Red 2 a story as well as a plot. As it is, it's only hinted at in the form of a few throwaway jokes.
But if Willis can't keep pace with the lunacy around him, Mirren and Malkovich are well ahead of it. Victoria and Marvin are the heroes of Red 2 and you can have a worse time at the movies than watching Helen Mirren and John Malkovich deadpan their unique ways through their characters' craziness.
It's a stretch, but not as much of one as you'd think, but you can see Despicable Me 2 as a companion piece to Red. That's Red, not Red 2.
In both you have a bald, middle-aged retired action-adventure hero trying to live a normal life in the suburbs who gets dragged back into a world of mystery, danger, and suspense by the uninvited and unwelcome appearance of ghosts from his exciting past.
The difference is that, unlike Frank, Gru isn't bored or alienated. He's quite happy, in fact. He has a new line of work, making jams and jellies in the underground laboratory and factory where he used to build the weapons and devices for his evil schemes. He fits in and gets along well with his neighbors---Most of them, at any rate.---and they like him. The mothers in the neighborhood, particularly, look out for him. They see Gru as a normal single dad doing an admirable job of raising his three adopted daughters on his own. And that's just it. Frank is lonely. Gru has Margo, Edith, and Agnes. They adore him, he adores them and would do anything for them, including, if the situation is desperate enough, dressing up as a fairy princess now and then.
But then those ghosts come calling. Gru, as reluctantly as Frank, although reluctant for very different reasons, gets back into the game and puts the old skills to work to save the day.
And that's about as far as the Red-Despicable Me 2 parallels go, because...
The temptation for makers of sequels, especially for makers of sequels to movies that didn't really need sequels, is to deliver more of the same with emphasis.
If something worked once in the original, then you can count on it being tried twice in the sequel. Or three times. Or four. Or four dozen. (See above.) As you might expect, in Despicable Me 2 that means more minions.
Now, as a fan of the minions, I might have been inclined to feel you can't have too many minions. But directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud don't test that. They give us more but in a way that feels like less. Not less as in not enough. Less as in always leave 'em wanting more.
The minions get more scenes and more to do. There's more minion slapstick. More minion singing and dancing. More minion involvement in the plot. But we see them more on their own terms. They have lives, you know.
Freed from having to spend their workdays in the underground lab---it doesn't take as many minions to make jams and jellies as to build shrink rays and rocket ships--- Gru's core group of minions, Dave, Stuart, Lance, Jerry, Carl, and Kevin, have assigned themselves key jobs in the running of the Gru household and are, generally, handling things so well that Gru has learned to take them and their efforts for granted. In fact it's not until the WiFi goes out and Kevin doesn't come running to fix it that Gru starts to suspect there's trouble brewing at home, although his first thought is that Kevin has taken another vacation day without putting in for it.
But because Gru takes the minions for granted, we do too. They don't exactly sneak into scenes. It's more the case that their being there is such a given that it takes a minute to remember that three foot tall, one-eyed, yellow, indoor golf-playing, cross-dressing, fart joke-loving, French ballad-singing henchmen aren't a part of every normal suburban family.
There's another temptation for sequel makers, the temptation to undo the happy ending of the original in order to redo it in a slightly different but still safely familiar way, and this one Despicable Me 2 avoids completely.
Gru doesn't fall back into his evil ways. He's truly reformed, a really good good guy. The girls aren't taken from him, so he doesn't have to prove his worthiness as a loving and loveable father all over again. The moon doesn't need to be stolen again. Vector, thankfully, doesn't return as the villain.
Despicable Me 2 quietly picks up Gru where Despicable Me left him, cheerfully and contentedly at home, a devoted family man with three loving daughters, the foundations of a full and happy life safely laid, lacking for nothing except---
No, not adventure.
Enter Lucy Wilde, an overly enthusiastic rookie agent for the Anti-Villain League who arrives to forcibly recruit Gru in an effort to track down and thwart a mysterious new supervillain whose evil scheme will eventually involve cupcakes, chickens, a threat to the minions, and a lot of purple.
Lucy is voiced by Kristen Wiig but that hardly matters any more than it matters that it’s Steve Carell doing the voice of Gru. Like Despicable Me, Despicable Me 2 is very close to being a silent movie. Not that it is very close to being silent. But it could be and we’d still get it. Almost all its humor is visual and much of its exposition is delivered visually too. Lucy looks and moves funny, but what she really brings to the story, which Despicable Me lacked, besides a grown-up female lead, is a visual complement to Gru.
I like the style of both the original and the sequel. They don’t look any other CGI cartoons. I can’t identify all their influences, but Gru is clearly inspired by Edward Gorey and in Despicable Me he was alone in that. But Lucy could be one of Gorey’s ballerinas, slender, apparently boneless, liquidy, but cheerful and always in motion instead of at rest. Actually, she never rests. And in her company Gru never rests either. He becomes graceful. I should say, more graceful. Together they’re paired in a continual slapstick tango.
If you saw and enjoyed Red, you’ll probably get a kick out of Red 2, but you also probably won’t enjoy it as much. If you haven’t seen Red, I recommend giving Red 2 the skip and seeing Red soon.
But I don’t think you need to have seen Despicable Me first in order to enjoy Despicable Me 2, although it’s probably better if you did. But coming out of the theater, I had the feeling that I liked Despicable Me 2 more than the original. Not a lot more. But more. I’m not sure why. It may have been that all the sentimentality of Gru’s reformation and adoptive fatherhood was gotten out of the way. It may have been that I was just glad Vector wasn’t back. He was a truly annoying villain. It may have been that Lucy really was exactly what was needed to complete things. It may have been that Gru makes an even better hero than he did a villain.
It may have been the tortilla chip hats.
It may have been that it was simply a better made movie all around.
Who am I kidding?
I know what it was.
Red 2, directed by Dean Parisot, screenplay by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber. Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Byung-hu Lee, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Brian Cox, Neal McDonough, and Anthony Hopkins. 116 minutes. Rated PG-13. Despicable Me 2, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, screenplay by Ken Dorio and Cinco Paul. Featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristin Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Steve Coogan, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, and Kristen Schaal. 98 minutes. Rated PG. Both movies now in theaters.