Red 2(Summit, Blu-ray, DVD, On Demand) makes the case that our appetite for senior citizen action movies is big enough to support two franchises. This is the more self-consciously comic take, with Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren as retired covert agents dragged back to action for yet another contrived plot that involves a deadly secret weapon and a conspiracy to frame our heroes. Every intelligence agency on earth is, of course, ready to carry out contracts on them, while civilian girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker gets drafted into the crew, much to the dismay of Willis.
It’s a basically a tongue-in-cheek James Bond movie with globetrotting old pros proving that they aren’t too old for this s**t. They outsmart and out-act their younger counterparts while tracking down a weapon too dangerous to trust to governments (yet okay to for a paranoid nutcase like Malkovich, who carries around a stick of dynamite for emergencies), and for this one they are joined by Catherine Zeta-Jones (as a Soviet agent) and Anthony Hopkins (as the mad scientist who created the bomb). Korean star Byung-hun Lee makes a colorful addition to the cast and Neal McDonough, David Thewlis and Brian Cox co-star.
There’s a lot of big set pieces, crashing cars and explosions propping up a flimsy plot just so we can enjoy the company of these scene-stealing vets playing in the action movie sandbox. Willis tosses off quips with his lopsided grin, Malkovich mugs around like an escaped lunatic with an arsenal of booby traps and Mirren combines a gift for cold-blooded mayhem with regal authority: a class act in a silly, busy, loud comic book action movie. Which should tell you all you need to know about it.
Rock of Ages (Warner) is both the apogee and the nadir of jukebox rock musicals, a collection of show business clichés wrapped in iconic heavy metal /eighties power pop anthems and delivered via movie star karaoke. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are the ostensible leads here, the gorgeous young hopefuls who work on the Sunset Strip in hopes of breaking into the music business, and they play their roles with earnest intent and dull inevitability. The veteran cast understands the material better, playing it both for oversized melodrama and knowing parody, with Tom Cruise pretty much keeping it aloft with his drugged up, oversexed, washed up arena rocker strutting through the ruins of the hair band culture.
It’s as thin a book as a jukebox musical ever had and pumping it up with stars only shows how little substance they have to work with and how poorly the songs work as reflections of the story. And as executed by director Adam Shankman, this paean to the energy of rock and sex against the forces of repression of the moral police (as represented by Catherine Zeta-Jones) makes for a rather restrained R-rated movie trying to appeal to the post-“Glee” musical fan. It’s so timid that it can’t even commit to a gay love story without resorting to a broad lampoon of romantic clichés, meanwhile playing it straight while trying to convince us that the savior of rock and roll is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, and Paul Giamatti co-star.
Steven Soderberg tackles the drug trade with startling clarity in Traffic (Criterion), quilting a complex checkerboard screenplay into a unified piece.
Taking the viewer from Tijuana to Washington, with side trips to middle America and border crossings, Soderberg explores the instability and corruption that makes the drug war so futile. Michael Douglas stars as the well meaning drug Czar and Catherine Zeta-Jones is a pregnant socialite turned lioness, but the heart belongs to Benicio Del Toro, a Tijuana cop ambiguous to the final scene, playing the opportunist while hiding his passion and disgust under a mask of indifference. Del Toro earned one of the film’s four Oscars; the others went to director Steven Soderberg, editor Stephen Mirrione, and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (who adapted, condensed, and transplanted the original British mini-series “Traffik”). Soderberg never lets his anger overflow into the film, but his emotional restraint makes this critical portrait of a doomed struggle even more cutting.
The film is also available on Blu-ray from Universal, in an edition with a short featurette and deleted scenes. The “Director Approved” Criterion edition, by contrast, is packed with supplements, including three separate commentary tracks: a sharp and articulate track by director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan; one by producers Laura Bickford, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz and consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien, which brings a completely different set of insights and background information to the film; and one with composer Cliff Martinez (with two music cues not included in the film).
There are also deleted scenes with optional commentary by Soderbergh and Gaghan and 30 minutes of additional footage from the scenes of the El Paso Intelligence Center and the Washington D.C. cocktail party, but the disc’s most compelling features are demonstrations of the three key production elements. There is a step by step look into the film processing technique used to achieve the sun-blasted look of the Mexican scenes; a demonstration of the editing choices and process of three scenes narrated by editor Stephen Mirrione (watching each scene become subtly sharpened and focused through each successive cut is a real education in the art of editing); and an instructional look at the art and technique of sound editing, hosted by sound editor Larry Blake. While a little on the technical side (Mirrione’s talk of “layering” isn’t always clear), each of these demonstrations is attacked with the kind of professional insight rarely seen in such DVD productions. Also features a gallery of U.S. Customs trading cards of the K-9 squad (!), TV spots, and trailers.