by Steve Habrat
About three years ago, director Robert Schwentke’s geriatric action-comedy RED became a respectable success. It raked in a nice chunk of change, it seemed to charm anyone who went to the theater to see it, and it even went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Picture-Musical or Comedy category. While I found RED to be a fairly entertaining comic book outing, it really didn’t win me over like it did with almost everyone else who ventured to the theater to check out Helen Mirren with a machine gun. The absolute last thing that I thought it needed was a sequel, but apparently Hollywood thought differently. Enter RED 2, an action comedy that practically throws its back out to capture the same small, off-beat charms of the first film in a summer blockbuster season crammed with giant robots, monsters, and other, better superheroes. While new director Dean Parisot may have had his heart in the right place, RED 2 is a sluggish and stale shoot-‘em-up that feels obligated to incorporate every action movie cliché imaginable. The returning cast members sure seem spirited and the newcomers are relishing the idea of spending time with Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich, but after a while, all of them start to seem bored, confused, and, much to my horror, a bit winded. Come on, guys, pick it up!
Former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis) is trying to live a normal life with his feisty girlfriend, Sarah Ross (played by Mary-Louise Parker). One day while shopping at Costco, Frank and Sarah bump into paranoid buddy Marvin Boggs (played by John Malkovich), who warns Frank that there are people after them. Frank dismisses Marvin, and moments later, Marvin’s car is blown up. Sarah and Frank attend Marvin’s funeral, even though Frank is convinced that Marvin is not dead, and afterward, Frank is taken to the Yankee White Facility to be interrogated. While in custody, the Yankee White Facility is attacked by Jack Horton (played by Neal McDonough), who is there to find Frank, but right before Frank is going to be killed, Marvin, who turns out to be alive, saves the day. Frank and Sarah go on the run with Marvin, who explains that they were listed as participants in a secret Cold War mission called “Nightshade,” which revolved around sneaking a nuclear weapon into the Kremlin piece by piece. As it turns out, that mysterious weapon is now in high demand. Just when the trio believes that things can’t get any worse, they learn that their old friend Victoria Winters (played by Helen Mirren) and top contract killer Han Jo-bae (played by Lee Byung-hun) have been hired to kill them. As Frank, Sarah, and Marvin travel the world to clear their names, they come face to face with the beautiful Russian secret agent Katya (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), a deadly assassin called “The Frog” (played by David Thewlis), and the crazy Dr. Edward Bailey (played by Anthony Hopkins), the man responsible for the creation of the weapon.
After getting off to a cloudy start, RED 2 quickly morphs into another seen-it-all-before action comedy. While RED was more humorous than it was flat-out funny, RED 2 can’t seem to deliver a good laugh to save its life. The only one who doesn’t fumble through her one-liners is Mirren, who really knows how to make even the most wooden joke cut like a knife. It is one thing that the jokes come off as lazy, but it’s another when the action can’t seem to ever get your adrenaline pumping. There are the expected car chases through narrow Paris streets, there are the fistfights that are meant to show us that Bruce Willis can still throw a mean right hook, and there are the Gatling-gun shootouts that turn cars and buildings into Swiss cheese, but all of these would-be rushes seem like they were executed by using a how-to manual for action films. The only time that Parisot really adds any personality to all the compact destruction is near the end, when Byung-hun and Mirren hop into a ice blue sports car and swerve around whizzing bullets like they belong in The Fast and the Furious. The entire sequence is anchored by Mirren’s ability to barely raise an eyebrow as cars go flipping end over end behind them. This is basically where the fun begins and ends in RED 2.
The true strength of RED lied with its all-star cast of energetic veterans who really made the film something worth talking about. While the cast of RED 2 is clearly having a good time with each other, their performances are a mixed bag. As far as the returning cast members go, Willis is the one headlining the mayhem and he looks to be right at home while doing it. He jumps, shoots, kicks, punches, and bleeds like a champion, but as the story progresses, he almost seems to be loosing interest in saving the world for the hundredth time. As Marvin, Malkovich dials back some of his acid-flashback craziness, which is a shame because his character relied on the idea that he had more than a few screws loose. Parker is clearly enjoying the fact that she is surrounded by a handful of legends, but she probably gives the laziest performance in the entire film. She basically just constantly gets mad at Frank for having dated Katya several years earlier. Mirren probably gives the best performance of the film as Victoria, who doesn’t remotely seem phased by anything going on around her. As far as the newcomers are concerned, Jones is here to give the film a bit more sex appeal. She is vampy and fun, but we are barely given the chance to get to know her character. Byung-hun turns up as the usual unstoppable hitman who can, you guessed it, kill someone with almost ANYTHING. It appears that Malkovich handed all of his crazy pills over to Hopkins, who jolly-goods his way through a crackers performance as Dr. Edward Bailey. Rounding out the cast is Neal McDonough as Jack Horton, the most boring bad guy ever. Seriously, he even has a boring name!
While the original RED had quite a few positives working in its favor, the film found success mostly because it was released during a slow month at the box office. The film came out at the end of October, with absolutely no competition whatsoever. RED 2 has been released in the middle of July, on a weekend that is usually reserved for a major studio release that is sure to make close to $100 million. It is surrounded by epic releases that almost dwarf it and make it seem like a wimpy effort. While it could be argued that RED 2 offers a nice change of pace from the usual superhero movies and alien invasion blockbusters, the film is still trying to be an action movie without bringing anything new to the table, which is really a shame. Overall, RED 2 isn’t a particularly awful film, but it is one made with absolutely no artistic vision. The tone is flat, the plot is dull, the action recycled, and the acting all over the place. Maybe if the studio shot for a release date earlier in the year or later this fall, these issues may not have been as noticeable. If there is a RED 3 in the works, which I’m sure that there is, maybe they should start rethinking it or hire a director willing to shake things up a bit.
by Steve Habrat
Rumor has it that Side Effects, the slinky, sexy new psychological thriller from busybody director Steven Soderbergh (Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike) will be his final motion picture. If this is true, Side Effects is certainly a high note to bow out on. An edge-of-your-seat exercise that would please Alfred Hitchcock, Side Effects threatens to take aim at prescription drugs and the long lists of side effects that may come with taking them, but half way through, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns decide to double cross the viewer. What comes next is a glossy, upper-class murder mystery that creeps up behind you and sends a chill down your spine. It certainly isn’t the film you expect it to be, mostly because Side Effects has been advertised as a hazy tale of prescription drug side effects spiraling those who pop the anti-depressant Ablixa, the fictional drug prescribed to those suffering from depression within the film, into a murderous daze. You will be surprised by what the filmmakers have in store for you and, more importantly, you will not be able to resist the sensual pull of the story. And then there is the haunting performances, mostly from the unpredictable Rooney Mara, who constructs another firecracker of a character.
Side Effects follows 28-year-old Emily Taylor (Played by Rooney Mara), the wife of Martin Taylor (Played by Channing Tatum), who recently returned home after serving a 4-year prison sentence for insider trading. As Martin figures out a way to get their lives back on track, Emily suddenly attempts to commit suicide. After recovering, Emily is sent to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Played by Jude Law), a psychiatrist who puts Emily on a number of anti-depressants that appear to do nothing for her. With every option exhausted and Emily still contemplating suicide, Jonathan decides to put Emily on the experimental drug Ablixa. Ablixa appears to be helping Emily and her life with Martin seems to be getting back on track, but one evening, Emily viscously attacks Martin in a daze. Emily is arrested for the attack and the police begin an investigation that could threaten Jonathan’s practice. Growing desperate to get to the bottom of the mysterious attack, Jonathan seeks out Victoria Siebert (Played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), Emily’s former psychiatrist who offers up disturbing new information. As Jonathan digs deeper into Emily’s past, he stumbles upon secrets that will not just destroy his career, but also shatter his happy marriage.
Side Effects turns out to be a very difficult film to review, as the second half of the film is ripe with surprises, some being very clever and some flirting with silliness. The film really gets by on its element of surprise and its best you don’t know much about the story going in. Despite some far-fetched touches to the script, the film does keep you intrigued with where it is going to slither off to next. If Side Effects turns out to be Soderbergh’s last film, he can retire knowing that he delivered an extremely well-made film. Some scenes begin out of focus, with characters or objects slowly revealing themselves to the viewer. It is a nifty touch that subtly mirrors the secrets of the plot slowly becoming clear to the viewer. It also gives the film a surreal feel, making the lavish New York City penthouses, offices, and apartments seem chillingly distorted or generally off-putting. Soderbergh then drenches the sets in a warm orange glow with plenty of ominous shadows creeping over the characters, their lavish worlds slipping into a darkness. Then there is the inescapable erotic atmosphere that hangs over the shady events, a seductive mood complimented by sexy trip-hop tunes on the soundtrack. It certainly is a hip and pretty package that is eager to compliment its four photogenic leads.
Bringing the sexual sparks she brought to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara sizzles once again as the glassy-eyed Emily, a woman drunk on wealth and distraught over it disappearing in the blink of an eye. She is bone chilling as she descends into bizarre sleepwalking spells that find her fixing dinner for three even though she has no children with Martin (another plot twist that rattles the viewer). When she blankly jabs the knife into Martin’s stomach, more than a few people in the showing I attended jumped and erupted in horror and disbelief at what was occurring. It is clear that Mara is aware that she is very good at doing crazy and she really brings the crazy here. It is said that Blake Lively was originally up for the role of Emily but thankfully it went to someone with more talent. Tatum does a fine job as the confused yet understanding husband, who is well aware of the grief he has brought on Emily. He is given a supporting role here but he doesn’t resort to phoning the performance in. Law wins us over as a victim caught up in a web of lies and deceit. You really feel for him as his life crashes down around him and you’ll smile to yourself as he devises way to stay one step ahead of those trying to bring him down. Zeta-Jones is as vampy as ever as the sinister Victoria, a woman who acts as if she wants to help the troubled Emily any way she can yet conceals disturbing behavior in the past.
At an hour and forty-five minutes, Side Effects is practically over in the blink of an eye because, frankly, there is never a dull moment. Soderbergh is constantly framing a fascinating image, capturing a spine-tingling performance, or making the hair on your arm stand at attention when Emily slips into a daze. You can’t shake the feeling that the film would have fared better if it would have kept its attention on prescription drugs and their seemingly never-ending list of side effects. Still, Soderbergh and Burns refuse to dumb themselves down in the second act even if they do get a bit carried away with a certain relationship (you’ll see what I mean). Overall, Side Effects is a surprisingly beefy film that is glaringly out of place for this time of year. A handsomely made and clean-cut thriller that isn’t afraid to send the viewer away deep in thought. Side effects may include your stomach twisting into knots, a desire to see it twice, an unwillingness to take any medication you may be on, and an incurable fear of Rooney Mara. See it before all the surprises have been spoiled.