Reviews

More Mayhem and Eccentricity in 'Red 2'

Everyone looks to be having fun in Red 2, an action film that doesn’t feel the need to brood.


Red 2

Director: Dean Parisot
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-07-19 (General release)
UK date: 2013-08-02 (General release)
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Trailer

If you’re looking for a poster child for the sequelitis that has afflicted Hollywood, Bruce Willis would be a worthy candidate. This year alone, he reprised his most enduring role in A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth outing for that series, and joined the G.I. Joe franchise for its second go-around. Last year, he appeared in The Expendables 2 and he is slated to be in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For next year.

So it is no surprise that this summer brings yet another sequel for Willis. In Red 2, he returns as Frank Moses, a former CIA agent who can’t escape his past. That past is premised on the acronym "RED," which -- as you may recall -- alludes to the Retired, Extremely Dangerous ex-spies who are considered by their next generational replacements to be especially lethal, and so, in need of monitoring, containment, or worse.

Indeed, in the first film, Frank was forced out of retirement when a hit squad tried to take him out. He took the civilian Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) on the run with him, and reconnected with fellow former operatives Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), and Victoria (Helen Mirren): the result was action-movie mayhem spiced with old people being "eccentric," not a terrible combination in this case. Red offered a great cast who chewed their way through scenes and never took themselves very seriously. Just so, Red 2 pulls off the trick that eludes most sequels, giving the audience more of what worked in the original without being an exact and lumbering retread.

The new film opens on Frank and Sarah at Costco. They have settled into a mundane domesticity in the suburbs, which suits Frank just fine, since he wants nothing more than to have a long and safe life with the woman he loves. Sarah, however, is starting to get bored. Lucky for her -- and us -- Marvin shows up at the Costco, raving about a plot to have them all killed, which sends everyone spiraling into a new adventure.

They learn that their imminent termination is motivated by charges that they are international terrorists. And so of course they must travel internationally (from Paris to London to Moscow) to track down culprits, redeem themselves, and probably save the world too. This last idea is underlined when they pursue a weapon of mass destruction codenamed Nightshade (because such things must have codenames) that has been hidden for 35 years. It's best not to try to impose any logic on the plot, which is largely incomprehensible. Red 2 is merely an excuse to spend a couple of hours with the characters again.

And that's fine. Marvin persists with his full-on crazy conspiracy theories (and Malkovich is delightful, as ever) and Victoria remains prim and proper, even when she is dissolving her latest marks in acid in hotel bathrooms. Their antic exchanges are enhanced by equally brilliant newcomers, like the devious scientist Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), who has been imprisoned for decades for building the hidden WMD, and sultry Russian operative Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose romantic past with Frank quite irritates Sarah.

Even for that irritation, everyone looks to be having fun in Red 2, an action film that doesn’t feel the need to brood. The tone is more like the James Bond of the Roger Moore era than the tortured spy played by Daniel Craig. It's welcome as well during a summer season when even Superman has gone dark and become morally ambiguous.

Red 2's frothy mix of stunts and jokes is lightweight throughout. The many car chases aren’t going to impress anyone who has seen the Fast and Furious sequels, but they offer the pleasure of watching Helen Mirren firing guns out of spinning cars with undisguised enthusiasm. Moments like that pretty much ensure that this franchise won’t be retired any time soon.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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