Posts Tagged ‘DC Comics’

Director: Patty Jenkins

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya

For as long as we can remember, superhero films have featured protagonists whose motivations consist primarily of a combination of two things: 1) a natural enemy to defeat and 2) someone whose death they feel compelled to avenge. #2 comes around a little less often than #1, but the fact remains that the hero is focused on defeating the villain. #1 is no different in the case of Wonder Woman, as she was born and bred for this purpose. But there is much that is different about her. Apart from Marvel’s Thor, Wonder Woman is unique in that she is the offspring of a god. Having the powers of an immortal god could have easily led to her imposing her will on all of humanity. But that’s not Wonder Woman’s style. She is not the sort who would destroy entire cities to end a threat, or perform a memory wipe on someone just to remove the burden of having to shield them 24/7. What truly helps Wonder Woman to stand out among the crowd is her unwavering desire to save people.

In 2017 Paris, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) stares at an old photograph of herself and others from a century ago, recovered for her by newfound friend, Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman. Her memories of a long ago era take her back first to her youth on the island of Themyscira, where she was one among the many of Amazonian warrior women who lived there. The island is obscured from the rest of the world for their (and, more specifically, Diana’s) own protection. Despite the objections of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana begins training for a battle yet to come. That battle, against Ares, the god of war, is one that Zeus (Ares’s father) believed was inevitable, and thus he created Diana through Hippolyta. In Hippolyta’s sister, General Antiope (Robin Wright), the greatest of all warriors on Themyscira, Diana could find no better teacher. Princess Buttercup is a general, now. How cool is that?!

Trouble arrives when a German plane piloted by American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into the water just off the coast of Themyscira. Diana saves Steve, but he was followed, and although the ensuing German assault is soundly defeated, Antiope is killed. The Lasso of Truth forces Steve to reveal the nature of his mission: the theft of a notebook from the laboratory of Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), who is developing mustard gas for the Germans, which indicates the plans to start a higher form of warfare. The Amazonians, up to now, had no idea that World War I was going on around them. Diana believes that this is a sign of Ares’ return, that he is posing as German General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and that it is her duty to find and defeat him.

Having no experience with the outside world, Diana is unaccustomed to a society where women have no say in any matters of importance. As such, there are many awkward moments, both in trying to assert herself and in trying to look the part of a woman living in the 1910s. Perhaps the best example of this is when Diana attempts to walk out onto the streets of London whilst carrying both her sword and shield. Not exactly the type of thing that would help her to “blend in”! At the War Council, Steve barges in and delivers the notebook, but is barred from taking any further action. An armistice with Germany is in the works, and they don’t want anything mucking it up. Steve is a soldier, and as such is willing to (reluctantly) accept orders once they are given, but Diana (whom Steve has introduced as Diana Prince) sees only foolishness in failing to act. One member of the council, Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) agrees to help them covertly.

After putting a team together, Steve and Diana head for Belgium. At the Western Front, the team finds what appears to them to be an impasse. In what has to go down as the movie’s greatest scene… perhaps one of the greatest scenes of ANY superhero film… Diana climbs from the trenches and walks through No man’s land, using her bracelets and her shield to deflect all incoming enemy fire. This moment is as breathtaking as it is inspirational. A village is liberated, and the photograph from the film’s opening scene is taken. Afterwards, Steve and Diana share a moment of intimacy. Alas, though the battle may be won, the war is far from over.

Diana tracks down and attempts to kill Ludendorff, but Steve stops her, believing that their mission to stop the gas attack would be compromised. Ludendorff subsequently orders a test of the gas on the very town which Diana and Steve just rescued. Distraught by the senseless loss of life and beginning to lose her faith in humanity, Diana lashes out at Steve and continues her pursuit of Ludendorff. Finding him once again, Diana does not fail in her mission to kill Ludendorff, yet she is puzzled. If Ares is now dead, why then does the war continue? That question is answered quickly. Out of nowhere, Sir Patrick appears, declaring himself to be Ares.

All along, Diana has assumed that Ares has been controlling the thoughts and actions of the Germans. In an attempt to simultaneously break her spirit and cause his sister to join him, Ares explains to Diana that he hasn’t deprived humanity of its free will, that it is they who choose to be evil. While this is going on, Steve pilots a plane carrying the mustard gas high into the sky where, in an act of self-sacrifice, he can detonate it safely. Despite some cheer-leading from Ares, Diana chooses not to murder a defenseless Doctor Poison, instead reassured and inspired by Steve’s final words to her as well as his final act, both of which were born from love. It is through the power of love… Diana’s love for Steve and for all of humanity… that Diana is able to summon the energy that has always existed within her to ultimately defeat her brother, once and for all.

Wonder Woman was already recognizable as being (easily) the best part of 2016’s Batman v Superman. As the star of her very own movie, the Princess of Themyscira makes 2017’s Wonder Woman one of the very best superhero movies ever made. Apart from the rather timely message of love conquering hate, Wonder Woman also features terrific set design (owing to its World War I setting), a great supporting cast (in which Chris Pine is the standout), and a powerful score by Rupert Gregson-Williams. Not since John Williams’ Superman (1978) and Danny Elfman’s Batman (1989) scores has a superhero been blessed with such appropriate music, particularly the track “Wonder Woman’s Wrath.” Incidentally, when Wonder Woman returns in Fall 2017 for Justice League, Danny Elfman will provide the music.

Finally, there’s Gal Gadot herself. A former Israeli model who owes her first big break in Hollywood (2011’s Fast Five) to actor Vin Diesel, Gadot’s hiring for Wonder Woman was widely criticized. So was Michael Keaton for 1989’s Batman, as well as Heath Ledger for 2008’s The Dark Knight. Unfairly, Gadot’s criticism had more to with her body shape than anything else. Gadot turned out not just to be a good choice, but a perfect choice. Like those before her who’ve entered the superhero genre and succeeded as mightily as Gal Gadot has with Wonder Woman, Gadot’s name will forever be synonymous with her character. For as long as Gadot wields the Lasso of Truth as Diana Prince, I will always be appreciative of what she brings to the table.

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Director: David Ayer

Starring: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevigne

When the character of Harley Quinn first arrived on the scene in 1992’s “Batman: The Animated Series,” I never would have guessed that she would become a part of the comic book lineage as well, nor that she would ever be anything more than a throwaway sidekick/love interest for the Joker whose very presence undermined the more famous supervillain. Since that time, it had always been my belief that the Joker was better off without being tied to Harley Quinn. Now, with the release of Suicide Squad in 2016, I am left to wonder if the opposite can’t also be true.

The events of Batman v. Superman have (at least temporarily) led to a hole in the Earth’s protection against threats it can’t handle alone.  Enter the Suicide Squad: DC Comics’ version of The Dirty Dozen. This ragtag group of misfits and criminals who’ve been jailed by the likes of Batman, the Flash and others are recruited against their will by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). Waller is tough as nails, takes no crap from anyone, and has as much of a mean streak as any of her new “recruits” do. All except for one: The Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), an ancient witch with god-like powers which has attached itself to the mind and body of Dr. June Moone. Enchantress doesn’t much care for being imprisoned and paraded around by mortals, so she bolts the first chance she gets and sets off on her plan to destroy the human race, with an assist from her brother, Incubus.

Even though it’s a mess of her own creation, Waller expects the Suicide Squad to clean it up for her, adding that she’s had nano-bombs implanted in each of their necks. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) incorrectly calls her bluff, leading to an attempted escape by team member Slipknot, who is quickly killed as a demonstration. Captain Boomerang and the others acquiesce and follow the lead of Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who unbeknownst to them is the lover of Dr. June Moone. The rest of the Suicide Squad includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Deadshot (Will Smith), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

The group’s mission is a simple extraction. Turns out the person in need of removal from the city is Waller herself. In the meantime, the Joker (Jared Leto) has come to free Harley. Having arranged for her implant to be disabled, the Joker steals a helicopter; the very one that was meant for the team’s extraction. Harley boards the helicopter, but falls out when it takes fire from Waller’s men. Deadshot is ordered to kill Harley, but he intentionally misses. The helicopter goes down, leading Harley to assume the Joker is dead.

Citizens and military personnel under the Enchantress’s control kidnap Waller, while Deadshot gets a hold of Waller’s confidential files, revealing the truth of the mission and Flag’s connection to it. Flag relieves the team of their obligation, and they all find the nearest bar. After downing a round or two (or three), they regroup and decide to take on the Enchantress anyway. Deadshot has the biggest motivation to do so, as he has a young and impressionable daughter who was present the night he was captured by Batman, and whom he wants to think highly of him.

The team climbs a long flight of stairs like in the original Ghostbusters, and gear up for the fight against Enchantress and Incubus. Diablo takes on Incubus alone. With the aid of explosive charges, Incubus is defeated, though not without the self-sacrifice of Diablo. Enchantress is not so easily handled, in fact she is nearly invincible. Ultimately, Harley Quinn acts as a distraction, pretending to have interest in joining the Enchantress’s cause. Instead, Harley Quinn cuts out the Enchantress’s heart. Acting as a team, Killer Croc then tosses an explosive into Enchantress’s doomsday weapon, while Deadshot fires the shot that destroys it. Flag then takes the heart and threatens to crush it unless June is brought back. Enchantress defiantly dares him to do it, even though it means her death. Flag is despondent, believing his lover dead, but she arises from the Enchantress’s carcass (yet another Ghostbusters nod).

The group is ready to disperse back into society, when a very much alive Waller emerges, still holding her finger on the kill button connected to the implants in their necks. Relunctantly, each returns to their cells, though not without special requests. Deadshot is allowed supervised visitations with his daughter. Harley Quinn, enjoying her new espresso machine, is broken out of prison by the Joker.

Like Batman v. SupermanSuicide Squad is a deeply flawed superhero film. The flaws begin almost immediately, as the audience is besieged by a soundtrack that can best be described as an amateur mixtape. Nearly the entirety of the first 45 minutes plays out like an elongated series of mini-music videos. Spread out, this wouldn’t be a problem, but there’s no chance for anyone to take a breath. Every character introduction requires another song.

Let’s talk about the characters in this movie. Of the main cast, only a handful has what one would call development. Viola Davis and Will Smith are both reliably good. Joel Kinnaman plays the conflicted hero role well enough. Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo is a decent tragic figure. On the other hand, Jai Courtney, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Adam Beach and Karen Fukuhara are disposable as Captain Boomerang, Killer Croc, Slipknot and Katana.

Hands down, this movie belongs to Margot Robbie and her definitive performance as Harley Quinn. Robbie’s Harley is equal parts sexy, funny, and batshit crazy. More Harley is wanted, and more Harley is what we’ll get in both Gotham City Sirens and a Suicide Squad sequel. What I’m hoping to see as little as possible of in the future is Jared Leto’s Joker. Less psychopathic and more just plain weird, Leto’s performance takes up maybe seven minutes of actual screen time here. More footage was left out of the Theatrical Cut (I assume some is reinserted into the Extended Cut). Despite the insistence of Jared Leto and director David Ayer, I can’t imagine any more of this person masquerading as the Joker doing anything but harm the movie even further.

The plot itself is copied and pasted from other capers, superhero flicks and comedies, with a villain that is far too weak to be an ancient immortal god/witch. Fault in the Enchantress’s threat level may lie simply in the casting of supermodel-turned-actress Cara Delevigne. A flaw like this might have been overlooked had the Suicide Squad itself not been short on character development. Ultimately, Suicide Squad represents a step up from the mostly disastrous superhero films of a generation ago, but stands as below average in the same genre of today.

Director: Zack Snyder

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot

As a comics reader, I’ve always been more of a Marvel fan. The same is true of the movies… for the most part. There have been exceptions to that rule, of course, notably with DC’s adaptations of Alan Moore classics V for Vendetta and Watchmen. The big-screen escapades of DC’s two most popular characters, Batman and Superman, have also piqued my interest on occasion. Of the two, Batman, being a man who has no superpowers to fall back on, is infinitely more relatable than the Last Son of Krypton.  So, of course, when it comes to a showdown between the two, I would always choose the side of the Caped Crusader. Not to mention the fact that I can count seeing Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman at the age of 7 as the event which changed me from a casual viewer to full-blown fan of movies. From 1978 to the present day, each hero’s cinematic ride has experienced the highest of highs, and (extremely) lowest of lows. 2016’s Batman v. Superman falls into neither category.

After a brief opening credits sequence which features what feels like the millionth depiction of the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne (played by “The Walking Dead” co-stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan), the action moves to the climactic battle sequence from the end of 2013’s Man of Steel, where Superman (Henry Cavill) winds up causing more destruction in Metropolis than he is able to prevent in battling General Zod (Michael Shannon). Only, this time, we witness the battle from the perspective of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck).

One cannot watch this sequence without automatically thinking of 9/11, and that’s what makes this the most effective part of the movie. It also helps to establish a motive for Bruce Wayne/Batman to see Superman not as a guardian of Earth, but as a threat against it. Bruce, who has been at this superhero gig for a while now, is using a much more harshly defined sense of justice these days, which provides Clark Kent/Superman with reason to voice his opinion on the matter via Daily Planet articles.

Unlike the Superman of the 1980s, who somehow was able to convince the leaders of the world to allow him to rid the Earth of nuclear weapons, this version of Superman has a hard time assuring the U.S. government that he has our best interests at heart. He is even compelled to appear before a Senate committee hearing on the subject. Unfortunately, the hearing is interrupted by a suicide bomb, which kills everyone in attendance, including Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). Everyone, that is, except for Superman. As it happens, this event, along with the seeds of doubt pitting Batman and Superman on opposing sides, have all been orchestrated by the unhinged head of LexCorp, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg).

Behind the scenes, Luthor has been very busy, collecting a Kryptonite sample, acquiring both Zod’s corpse and his spaceship, and also investigating the existence of metahumans. Bruce Wayne acquires both the Kryptonite and the info on meta-humans, the former to be used as a deterrent against Superman. The latter reveals to him four individuals with extraordinary gifts: the super-speedy Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the underwater-dwelling Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the part man, part machine Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), as well as Amazonian Princess and daughter of Zeus, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Bruce is already familiar with Diana, having bumped into her at a party at LexCorp. He only needs the one meeting to be able to sense that there is more to her than most men would notice.

Diana is also interested in the meta-human file, though only for a specific photo which she claims belongs to her. Bruce shares the file via e-mail, noting that this grainy black & white image from a century ago is not merely her possession, but is in fact a record of her involvement in the events of World War I. I reserve any further commentary on the matter, as the movie does, for 2017’s Wonder Woman.

The film’s promised fight finally gets underway thanks to Lex’s maneuverings, the final piece of which is the kidnapping of Martha Kent (Diane Lane), which will ensure that Superman fights Batman at Lex’s bidding, lest Martha meet a fiery end. So the two heroes fight, with Batman using Kryptonite as a means to level the playing field. Eventually, Batman gains the upper hand, but is startled by the notion that Superman’s adoptive mother and his own dead mother share the same first name. For most who have seen this movie, this scene is one of the most heavily scrutinized. It’s the jarring transition from beating the hell out of each other to suddenly being best buds which earns that criticism.

So, Batman volunteers to save Martha while Superman goes to confront Luthor. Unable to accept defeat, Luthor unveils his Plan B: the Kryptonian abomination known as Doomsday. It takes the combined efforts of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to provide adequate defense against the monster, but only Kryptonite can kill it, and the only fragment left was used by Batman to form a spear. It falls to Superman to find and use the spear, but because of his own weakness to the shiny green rock it leaves him just as vulnerable, and thus Superman and Doomsday simultaneously kill one another.

An epilogue, which is mainly a teaser for the forthcoming Justice League movie, shows Batman confronting a deranged Luthor in prison, who warns of the imminent arrival of supervillain Steppenwolf (whose actual name is never mentioned), leaving Bruce Wayne with the sense that, soon, the meta-humans will be compelled to answer the call to battle. Meanwhile, a funeral is held for Superman, who is recognized in death as the hero he was never fully appreciated as in life. But there are indications that he may not be totally dead just yet…

Batman v. Superman is a fundamentally flawed movie, which is pretty much par for the course with Batman and Superman’s movies (except for 2008’s The Dark Knight). It gives us a terrific Bruce Wayne/Batman (not to mention a decent Alfred as performed by Jeremy Irons), and a not-so-great Superman. The battle scenes are great, but character behavior/motivation is a problem. Particularly depressing is the portrayal of Superman not as the ray of hope he’s been known as through the majority of his existence since 1938, but as a dark, brooding character. That’s supposed to be Batman’s territory! The whole point is for them to have two wildly contrasting outlooks on the world and life in general.

So desperate was DC to compete with Marvel Studios that it got a little too greedy. It’s never a good idea to cross pollinate two completely different comic storylines into one movie. 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand did the same thing. So did 2007’s Spider-Man 3. All it does is undermine both arcs. If you’re gonna throw in “The Death of Superman” right after his first meeting with Batman, that’s fine. A little weird, but okay. What you shouldn’t do is pass off their chronologically final confrontation from the comics (“The Dark Knight Returns”) as their first in this movie. It’s rather jarring.

This movie is neither fantastic, nor fantastically awful, although it is clear that this wasn’t the best way to introduce the DCEU (DC Expanded Universe). One thing that Batman v. Superman got fantastically right is its portrayal of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. Even her theme music is badass! The scene-stealing Gal Gadot’s performance is spot-on; so much so that, by herself, Wonder Woman gave hope that her own adventure might just give DC the boost it needed after this misstep. But that, as I said, is a subject best left for another film review.

Batman (1989)

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance

Twenty-six summers ago, I wonder if anyone could have envisioned the explosion of comic book/superhero films we see today. Every couple of months or so, either DC or (more likely) Marvel is churning out another one. Back in 1989, however, the now mile-long list of films from this genre was limited to mere inches. Of the few that were in existence, most hadn’t made an exceptionally big splash. In 1986, “Howard the Duck” crashed and burned, and its ashes were doused in urine. It was so bad that Marvel didn’t really get back into the game until more than a decade later. Up to this point, only Superman had really grabbed anyone’s attention at the movies for DC Comics. Any prior big-screen experience for Superman’s Justice League partner had been the 1966 big-screen adaptation of the Adam West “Batman” TV series. Rather than anger fans of that show, I’ll say simply that I like Batman best when he’s not being played for comedy. Finally, in 1989, director Tim Burton would draw not upon the farcical 1960’s, but rather a mix of the Bob Kane/Bill Finger days of the 1940’s and the then-recent Frank Miller Batman stories (as well as Burton’s own brand of surrealism) to give both Batman and superheroes in general a wider audience than they had ever known before.

The orphaned son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) has not been left without the means to carry on nor the motivation to ensure that fewer people in Gotham City should have to live with the horror he has experienced in his life. Having witnessed the murder of his parents when he was just a child, Bruce now patrols the streets of Gotham at night dressed as his alter ego, Batman. Perceived as a mythical figure by the police officers and criminals who’ve yet to cross his path, Batman’s true identity is known only by Bruce’s butler and surrogate father, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough). Even reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), who wishes to get close enough to Bruce to know his heart and close enough to Batman to get a career-making story, has not a clue that the two are one and the same.

The leading source of organized crime in Gotham City is a gang led by Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). His top lieutenant, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), had been carrying on an affair with his boss’s mistress. What Jack didn’t know was that Grissom had already discovered the indiscretion and made plans to remove him from the gang’s future business… permanently. Unfortunately for Grissom… and for Gotham… his plans lead not to Jack’s demise, but to his transformation into the Joker. The man known as Jack Napier displayed aptitude in science, chemistry and art, demonstrating a high level of intelligence, but this was countered by an erratic mental state which gave him homicidal tendencies. As the Joker, this instability becomes amplified (nerve toxins are now his main weapon of choice). His insanity leads him into a love triangle between himself, Vicky Vale, and Bruce Wayne. When Bruce learns of Jack’s role in the death of his parents, as Batman, his vendetta against the Joker becomes about more than just saving innocent lives.

Seeing this movie theatrically with my father at age 7, “Batman” acted as my introduction to all of the film’s major players: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman. The only familiarity I had going in was with singer Prince, who provided most of the film’s other music not attributed to Elfman. It is this incredible collection of talent and not the film’s simplified story which makes it special in my eyes (that and, of course, the nostalgia factor).

“Batman” would simply not have been what it was with lesser actors. As Vicky Vale (a character which has yet to reappear in any subsequent Batman film), Kim Basinger shows us some of the talent which would eventually win her a Best Supporting Actress award (in 1997, for “L.A. Confidential”). Admittedly, a more recent incarnation of the Joker has caused me to look back and see Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the character for what it is. Rather than slip into the persona of the Joker, Nicholson is more or less playing himself AS the Joker. Doesn’t mean he isn’t fantastic as always. As much of a legend and as much of a scene-stealer as Nicholson is, the real coup in the casting department was in giving the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne to Michael Keaton. At the time, it seemed an unlikely hire, as Keaton was known best for the title role in Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” That character would lead one to think of Keaton then as being a more likely candidate for the Joker. Thank goodness we were wrong because, after all of the films in the series featuring the Caped Crusader (both the good and the bad) that have followed, Keaton remains the definitive Bruce Wayne/Batman. Almost as synomymous with the character is Danny Elfman’s main theme, much in the same way that the John Williams “Superman” theme is.

In addition to being one of the first truly successful films based on a comic book, “Batman” also did its part in the creation of the blockbuster. Oh, it’s true that there were a number of movies that had come before which made a ton of money for their studio. But it wasn’t really until after the summer of 1989 that we started seeing movies making $200 million, $300 million, and now sometimes $400-$600 million on a more annual basis. You can attribute this to inflated ticket prices if you must… but the numbers speak for themselves, regardless.

If I had to rely on just the story, there are ways in which I could pick “Batman” apart if I tried hard enough. Particularly in the climax, there are some small things which bug me, such as how the Joker can know he was “a kid” when he killed the Batman’s parents since he doesn’t even know who Batman really is, or how it is that Joker’s thugs could anticipate that their boss would choose the bell tower of the church when running from Batman. It’s also somewhat strange that more of an emphasis is placed on the Joker’s origins than Batman’s, but whatever. Overall, it’s still a lot of fun, and worth sharing the experience with our children as our parents did for our generation.

Red 2 (2013)

Director: Dean Parisot

Starring: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Byung Hun Lee, Brian Cox, Neal McDonough

How do you keep the energy of an action film series fresh? It can’t be easy, or else there would be any number of sequels out there that could claim to be as good or better than the original. Comedies have the same problem. Too often, they take the easy road of repeating all the same jokes. When you fuse the two genres together, it puts even more pressure on the filmmakers to deliver. The action scenes need to dazzle the eyes and the humor has to tickle the funny bone. Fail in either area, and you’re screwed. Bruce Willis has had plenty of experience with duds over the course of his film career. Even the “Die Hard” franchise has been phoning it for the last 20 years (give or take). How was “RED 2” going to avoid the sequel curse? Well, putting together as equally talented a cast as the first film was certainly a step in the right direction.

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) witness the apparent demise of their friend Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) and attend the subsequent funeral. Marvin has faked his death so many times over the years, Frank notes, that it doesn’t seem real that he can be gone. Well, of course he isn’t! Frank gets picked up by government agents after the funeral, but the agents are all disposed of during Frank’s interrogation by Jack Horton (Neal McDonough) and a SWAT team. Frank, also a target, manages to escape in the nick of time, rescued by Sarah and a very much alive Marvin. Frank listens as Marvin explains his deception: They’ve been labeled terrorists because they were erroneously linked to a secret operation codenamed Nightshade. To make matters worse, they’re the targets of two contract killers, Han Cho-Bai (Byung Hun Lee) and their friend, Victoria (Helen Mirren), who calls them in advance to warn them about her hiring by MI6.

Globe-hopping from Paris to London to deep in the heart of Moscow, Frank and crew pick up some company along the way in the form of Katya, a Russian secret agent whom Marvin describes to a jealous Sarah as being Frank’s Kryptonite. She’s just as interested in Nightshade as the rest of them, but is ready, willing and able to backstab Frank at a moment’s notice. Good thing Marvin anticipates this, or she would make off with the all-important key they need. The group’s travels lead them to an insane asylum in London (how appropriate!), where they find the inventor of the nuclear device known as Nightshade, Dr. Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins). He’s been locked up for 32 years, and has the appearance of a man whose mind is mostly mush. Appearances can be deceiving.

Having Anthony Hopkins in your movie, whether in the wise old man role or as the villain, pretty much automatically ups your cool factor, as can the presence of Catherine Zeta-Jones. While that holds true in a very big way for Hopkins, I was mostly disappointed with Jones’s inclusion in “RED 2.” Katya seems to have been conceived as a mere plot device to create an unnecessary and uninteresting triangle between her character, Frank and Sarah. Fortunately, this plot device is prevented from overwhelming the main story as I feared it might. Byung Hun Lee and Neal McDonough are okay, but I miss Karl Urban. Willis, Parker, Malkovich and Mirren are all still a lot of fun, and I could stand to see them team together for a third go-round if they so choose. I especially appreciate that Mary-Louise Parker was given even more to do this time than in “RED.” Sarah may not be Retired and Extremely Dangerous, but she’s an integral part of the team now.

One of the more random events in the movie is a blatant product placement for Papa John’s Pizza during the Moscow sequence. There’s a secret tunnel to where the bomb is hidden, but to get to it, Frank & Co. have to enter a Papa John’s location and break through the wall in the back of the building. Great, now I crave a pepperoni and anchovies pizza w/ extra cheese. Thanks for that.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed the experience of watching this movie. If “RED 2” is inferior to the original, it is because it is far too predictable. While “RED” kept me guessing, “RED 2” delivers a more straightforward, black & white story where you know who the villains are, you can expect one of the bad guys to join the cause of the people they’ve spent most of the movie trying to kill, and you even know what trick the heroes will use to save the day. The villain’s favorite line that he likes to use is “Didn’t see that coming, did you?” Well, yes… as a matter of fact, I did.

Red (2010)

Director: Robert Schwentke

Starring: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Mary-Louise Parker, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, Julian McMahon

You can’t keep a good action hero down. In recent years, that’s truly been the case, as actors like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liam Neeson, and Bruce Willis (most of which appear together in the “Expendables” series of films) are all finding that getting older has not prevented them from playing the same kinds of tough guy roles that normally would go to men half their age. Willis especially has been keeping busy, milking the “Die Hard” franchise for every last cent, as well as featuring in the “G.I. Joe” reboot alongside Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, “Sin City” and its long-belated sequel (due out this time next month), and of course 2010’s “RED.”

The title of the film refers not to the color, but is an acronym for “Retired and Extremely Dangerous.” Frank Moses (Willis) might not look it, judging by the quiet and lonely life he has chosen for himself these days, but he was a black ops CIA agent in his youth. These days, the most exciting part of his day is the long-distance phone conversations he has with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), who works for the Kansas City pension office that sends Frank his checks. Frank tears up those pieces of paper just so he’ll have excuses to call her, sometimes just to talk about the plant she sent him. Sarah hates her job, and would love nothing more than to have a little excitement in her life. Her wish is about to be granted, although in a way that a little too closely resembles the romance/espionage novels she’s been reading. After a hit squad tries and fails to kill Frank, he heads for Kansas City, grabs Sarah for her own protection and rounds up the old gang, which includes conspiracy theorist Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), ex-MI6 agent Victoria Winslow (Helen Mirren), and Frank’s mentor, Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman).

Their goal is to find out who wants the members of a secret 1981 mission in Guatemala dead and who on that list might still be left alive. Standing in the team’s way is CIA agent William Cooper (Karl Urban). He’s a pretty tough customer, himself, though not always smart enough to know when he’s being played. Hardly mastermind material… more of a pawn, really. Eventually, the answers they find will lead to an assassination attempt on the Vice President of the United States… perpetrated by our heroes!

Although a fairly standard spy movie plot in the long-run, “RED” does keep the audience guessing throughout. Unless you’re paying strict attention to everything that everyone says, you may not figure out who the real bad guy is until the big reveal.  Based on a three-issue miniseries published by DC Comics in 2003 and 2004, “RED” is very fantastical, but also very balanced. It handles moments of hilarity just as easily as it does its most serious scenes of violence. John Malkovich’s over-the-top performance as Marvin steals much of the laughter, as does Mary-Louise Parker (whose comic timing reminds me why I absolutely loved the TV series “Weeds”). On the flipside, the fight between Bruce Willis and Karl Urban inside CIA Headquarters, though not nearly as dragged out as it ought to have been, is for me one of the most brutal on-screen fight sequences (not including boxing or martial arts movies) since Sean Connery battled Robert Shaw on a train in 1963’s “From Russia With Love.”

In 2013, a sequel to “RED” arrived… and it’s a good thing, too. These characters are too much fun to leave them with only one movie. A sequel means more zaniness from Malkovich, more wide-eyed curiosity from Parker and more machismo from Willis, not to mention more scenes of Helen Mirren and her big… guns. (Get your minds out of the gutter!) The question is, how much more mileage have they got left in them? Also, there is the age-old idea that sequels are inferior to the original, which action films and comedies have an especially hard time proving false. With the promise of new additions like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins, I’d say it’s worth the risk. It sure beats sitting around watching the daisies grow.