AUGUST 7, 2013
RED 2 slaughters impersonally, while Only God Forgives slays artistically, but neither justifies its murder spree.
By Mark Jenkins
This piece was commissioned by NPR.org, which never got around to posting it. This version has been slightly tweaked.
HOLLYWOOD ACTION MOVIES can't quite come to terms with death. These flicks dispatch supporting characters — especially foreign, swarthy or uniformed ones — without a thought. But their central characters just can't die, even when they do.
At the opening of Red 2, a bloated sequel to the 2010 comic shoot-'em-up about "retired, extremely dangerous" super-spies, Marvin (John Malkovich) is incinerated in an exploding truck. The movie even stages his funeral, but within minutes he's back, dragging reluctant Frank (Bruce Willis) and eager Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) into more trouble.
R.I.P.D. takes a further step into the great beyond. Its police-officer hero (Ryan Reynolds) actually does die, but that just conveys him to another plane of cop-flick existence, where he too has an annoying partner: a cartoon Texan played by Jeff Bridges. Mary-Louise Parker is also in this afterlife actioner, which was directed by Red's Robert Schwentke.
The movie seems to be a refashioning of Men in Black, with a wisecracking team pitted against CGI villains — although they're demons and such rather than ET's. More than that can not be reported, since Universal didn't have enough confidence in its ghost-cop caper to screen it for critics. (I could have seen the movie after it opened, but it faded so fast that wasting 96 minutes on it seemed unwarranted.)
Meanwhile, over in Bangkok, death is permanent, if absurdly aestheticized. With Only God Forgives, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn continues his world tour of ultraviolence, this time staging an Asian-style revenge fantasy. If it isn't precisely a Hollywood picture, it is a sideways sequel to the overrated Drive, in which Ryan Gosling played an iced-over L.A. stunt and getaway driver who thaws when he falls for a pretty neighbor (the hilariously miscast Carey Mulligan). Gosling returns in Only God Forgives, this time as an expat drug dealer and kickboxing promoter. He's a lot less heroic than the guy he played in Drive, which is one way in which Refn's latest movie is more interesting than its sentimental predecessor.
While R.I.P.D. may not be as dependent on Men in Black as its trailer suggests, Red 2 is heavily obliged to Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Frank, Marvin, Sarah and their British buddy Victoria (Helen Mirren) even bust into the Kremlin, with some help from old — but new to us — frenemies that include a sexy Russian agent (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and a sexy Korean hitman (Lee Byung-hun). Add Anthony Hopkins as a dotty but possibly dangerous scientist — also reported dead — and Red 2 is as packed with showboating performances as it with corpses.
As Julian in Only God Forgives, Gosling is even terser than his Drive character. His principal male antagonist, a rough-justice-dispensing police detective named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), does most of his talking with his sword. (Why would a cop carry a sword? Because it opens flesh so much more prettily than a gun.) The showiest performance comes from another Brit, Kristin Scott Thomas, who arrives as Julian's belligerent mother. She's crazed with grief that her other (and favorite) son has been killed, and that Julian has not performed what she considers the proper retribution.
Watching the usually demure Scott Thomas as a foul-mouthed (and American-accented) avenger has a certain appeal. Alas, she's delivering misogynistic dialogue written by a Dane who hasn't mastered the nuances of Yankee vulgarity. (Reportedly, some of her maledictions were actually suggested by Gosling.) Only God Forgives works only when its characters keep their mouths shut, which allows Refn's visual flair to upstage his empty script and unconvincing lines. Often red-tinted and shot in spare interiors, the film is a beautifully staged pageant that cribs elegantly, if pointlessly, from a dozen better European and Asian art-film directors.
The dialogue also disappoints in Red 2, which offers its whole cast about as many wisecracks as Willis usually delivers in five minutes of a Die Hard picture. The movie is overstuffed, lumbering and very little fun. Which is fatal in a movie that tries to justify its brainless carnage with a semblance of wit. In both the dishonestly bloodless Red 2 and the dispassionately bloody Only God Forgives, the slaughtered die very much in vain.
RED 2 — 2013, 107 min; still playing at some multiplexes.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES — 2013, 89 min; might be playing somewhere.