Talking Movies

July 31, 2013

RED 2

Bruce Willis and John Malkovich return for a second knowing outing as the retired and extremely dangerous spies who just want to be left alone.

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Frank (Willis) is trying to play house with girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), but a trip to Costco sees Marvin (Malkovich) warning him that they’re in terrible danger because someone is sniffing around their botched Cold War Op codenamed Nightshade. And sure enough before long MI6 doyenne Victoria (Helen Mirren) cheerfully informs them she’s been hired to kill them, they’re running from a well-resourced bent spook Horton (Neal McDonough), and they’re also running from his employee – the world’s greatest assassin Han (Byung Hun Lee), who has a personal grudge against Frank. And that’s before Frank and Sarah’s relationship is strained to breaking point by Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), his Russian agent Ex, appearing. Can Frank and Marvin get their hands on Nightshade’s weaponry before it gets them killed? And what role does mad Professor Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins) play in all this?

RED 2 is a fun caper that works best when it’s at its most absurd. Too often director Dean Parisot is content to merely insert Mirren into daft scenarios and watch the audience smile rather than forcing us to laugh with good gags. But when the gags are forthcoming they’re good. There are a couple of terrific back and forth scenes between Frank and Sarah, and a Zen disagreement between Frank, Marvin and Han. There is also a daft sequence in the Kremlin where Marvin attempts to leave Sarah in charge of guarding a vault while he does spy stuff with Frank that is priceless. Parisot also stages a car chase thru Paris with elan and wit as he never loses focus on the chase’s real interest: it’s another example of ‘helpful’ intervention by Marvin in Frank and Sarah’s relationship.

Willis and Parker continue to be an appealingly believable couple, well, ‘believable’, and Malkovich Fassbenders his way thru proceedings. There is, however, a reason that scriptwriters Jon & Erich Hoeber’s previous work Battleship was instanced in the recent Slate article decrying the baneful effect of Blake Snyder’s scriptwriting book Save the Cat! becoming the literal playbook for all Hollywood blockbusters. You can see all 15 of Snyder’s story beats arriving at the appropriate moments here, including the inevitable and infuriating ‘apparent victory’ – whose ruthless application in The Avengers, Skyfall, Gangster Squad, et al is driving us all slowly crazy. But thankfully, unlike Battleship, there’s enough stupid fun here to counteract the formula. Especially as the ‘thematic statement’ from Marvin to Frank is so wonderfully dumb in concept and wording that its resolution can’t help but be a knowingly parodic moment.

There’s life in the old dogs yet, and while this probably won’t run as long as the Fast & Furious franchise it deserves to match Ocean’s with a trilogy.

3/5

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July 25, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Franchise

Shia LaBeouf is done. Michael Bay is done. Transformers as a franchise is not done. But maybe it ought to be…

Whispers (by which I mean the usual incessant briefings by publicists) abound that Jason Statham is about to assume the lead role in the Transformers franchise and take it in ‘a darker direction’. While it’s always nice to see ‘The State’ in action movies, the last thing this franchise needs is to go any darker. It’s positively screaming out for a reboot to the sunnier climes of its original vision. And yes, I am aware that talking of something needing a reboot to capture the halcyon era of four years ago is a new level of preposterousness, but it’s justified. The third act of Transformers 3 is so dark as to resemble Independence Day by way of the back-stabbing betrayals by humans collaborating with exploiting aliens of Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD rather than the fun of 2007’s Transformers. This is amplified by very questionable touch of District 9 in the Deception guns that vaporise flesh so that piles of bones fall to the ground after they shoot people.

Ehren Kruger has written a script that, like his Scream 3 which also featured Patrick Dempsey, is structurally very sound and has any number of nice touches, but which fundamentally strays from the existing tone of the franchise.  Kruger’s rewriting of the space race as a cover story for a covert mission to retrieve an alien artefact, and the meltdown at Chernobyl being a disastrous attempt to utilise that alien technology, works as well as X-Men: First Class’ similar slyness. Patrick Dempsey impresses as two kinds of villain, the romantic rival who has more money and power to impress the girl, and the Quisling of smooth collaboration and self-justificatory villainy. The comedy with Ken Jeong maniacally harassing Sam, John Malkovich chewing scenery as Sam’s eccentric colour-coded boss, and Alan Tudyk freaking out as John Turturro’s unhinged PA is all very funny….but it’s insane; you’re laughing nervously because this doesn’t fit in with the rest of film almost as much as you’re laughing because it’s funny.

Kruger’s comedy is a style of humour which is entirely different from the comedy of the first film which organically grew from the characters around who an action story suddenly took place. This lack of organicism is a problem unwisely highlighted in-camera when Frances McDormand’s spook tells Sam he really has no function in this story, and sure enough Sam later inserts himself into the storyline by sheer perseverance rather than any interior logic. A greater problem is the discordant note struck by Kruger’s approach against Kurtzman and Orci’s template. It’s always embarrassing to remember just how juvenile a director the middle-aged Michael Bay is, but the ogling of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (all low-angle shots and short skirts) is different than that of Megan Fox, because it lacks the nod and wink self-awareness of Kurtzman and Orci’s script. It’s as if Kruger has no interest in semi-apologising for this nonsense. Bay’s lingering introductory shot of Huntington-Whiteley is, fittingly, of her arse, which is what her performance is a load of, to paraphrase Shirley Manson. But this can be forgiven as just Bay being Bay…

What is unforgivable, after the disastrous introduction of so many non-characterised or racially caricatured robots in the last film, is that Kruger doesn’t retrench and try to fully utilise the original Transformers, but instead retains racially caricatured characters and then (like a LOST scripwriter) continues to hoover up yet more new characters. I’ve complained about this before but Kruger here reaches the apotheosis of this franchise’s incomprehension of the riches available in the Transformers comics. Sentinel Prime may be from the comics but so is Shockwave, and he’s outrageously wasted in the film when in the comics he has the most distinctive style of delivery of any Transformer bar Grimlock and is a wonderfully nuanced villain. Kruger’s shocks are effective but the killing of Ironhide is incredibly gimmicky and the weak exits of Starscream and Megatron from the franchise are disgracefully disrespectful to their characters’ status in both the comics and the previous films, and, in Megatron’s case, as tonally wrong as Burton’s Batman dispatching the Joker. But then how Optimus finally deals with Sentinel plainly belongs in a macho action movie for adults, not a sunny blockbuster for children. Characters gushing blood oil, having limbs parts torn off, and their spines CPUs torn out is too much. The darkness makes this film feel loooong…

Transformers was a cartoon series designed to sell toys by creating archetypal characters who had entertaining adventures. The comics injected cod-Shakespearean parallels and ended in traumatic apocalypse but they were also great fun. Surely the film-makers could remember their true target audience and lighten up a bit…

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