Girls on Film: Helen Mirren could be one of Hollywood's great action heroes
Forget about Bruce Willis. Red 2 shows the value of letting a strong actress loose in an action franchise
The third Bruce Willis action sequel of 2013 hits theaters today. After throwing a one-two punch this spring with A Good Day to Die Hard and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Willis is back to smirk his way through Red 2, a sequel that sees the "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" C.I.A. retiree team up with his old spec-ops cronies to face the delayed aftermath of their old operations. Where the original Red earned modest acclaim, the second is landing with a dull thud; Red 2 currently sits at a middling 36 percent on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with critics like Justin Lowe at The Hollywood Reporter offering faint praise like "not that it isn't entertaining, but the film's premise is certainly well past its 'use by' date."
The same could be said for Willis himself, whose action apathy has become increasingly apparent in recent years. In a 2002 interview with The Mirror, Willis said, "I'm bored doing movies where I run down the street with a gun." After a decade, critics and fans are starting to agree. He's "phoning it in," evolving from a die-hard moonlighter to a "bored, cynical, old, almost has-been actor who wouldn't quit." "In his '90s superstar heyday, Bruce Willis regularly spun screenwriters' drivel into catchphrase gold," writes Todd Gilchrist at The Wrap. “But decades later in a lackadaisical sequel no one asked for except perhaps his creditors, he seems unmotivated to smile at all, much less offer a series of emotions that constitute a believable or compelling performance."
Willis' indifference is likely to pull Red 2 into the doldrums of the already over-stuffed summer blockbuster schedule. But unfortunately, Red 2's potential box office failure means much more than the death of Bruce Willis' latest phoned-in project; it means the death of the summer's one comic-book adaptation that offers more than one uber-man defying all odds. Ignore the posters and the trailers for Red 2. The real star is Helen Mirren's equitably fierce — and wildly scene-stealing — Victoria.
The Red comic books don't have much in common with Red on screen. Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner's limited comic series is a serious look at one retired CIA agent's re-entry into danger as he embarks on a solo quest to find out why people are after him — and while he loves to chat with his "handler" Sarah (played in the films by Mary-Louise Parker), he has no team of old friends who help him. But when they adapted Red in 2010, Summit and DC wanted more than another action film where Bruce Willis singlehandedly takes down hordes of Big Bads on his own, and gifted Willis' Frank with a series of male and female colleagues just as skilled as he is.
This progressive attitude gave Red a spark other action films had been missing. Instead of aged actors downing steroids to mask their advancing years, Red reveled in age, peeling away the normal social expectations of advanced years — the senile weirdness, the afternoon tea, the nursing home — to reveal the spark still thriving in each aged antihero. The women of Red enjoyed the same adventure as the men, moving beyond dark and highly sexualized comic adaptations like Sin City to reframe sexiness as a matter of action, not exploitation. Mary-Louise Parker's Sarah is invigorated by the danger Frank pulls her into, and wants nothing more than to become a hero like Helen Mirren's Victoria, who embraces danger with the fervor cinematic women usually save for shopping montages.
By the time the crew hit Moldova at the end of Red, the series was overflowing with potential for both ensemble sequels and spin-offs. But Red 2 is tethered to its source material like a rubber band, snapping back to a limbo between the comic and the first film. Instead of focusing on the thrill of seeing highly-skilled actors slip into the world of over-the-top action, and the danger that awaits them, Red 2's story is excessively focused on Frank's passé attitudes about relationships. Frank and Sarah repeatedly argue over his insistence that she avoid danger, and his foolish persistence that she not be given a gun or any self-defense training as his professional world continually threatens her (which leads her to use her sexuality, the only weapon he can't keep from her). The pair bicker jealousy as Sarah uses her lips as her weapon and Frank goes gaga for ex-girlfriend Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Comedy softens the tedium of Frank and Sarah's relationship, but the real charisma in Red 2 comes from the first Red's scene stealer — Mirren's Victoria. For all of the regressive aspects of Red 2, Victoria continues to be action perfection. As Brian Cox's Ivan purrs that there's "nothing more sexy in the world than a beautiful woman with an incredible gun," one wonders why the writers and filmmakers of the sequel aren't heeding the lessons of their own dialogue. Victoria, who impressed even the negative reviewers in the first film, is now relegated to tertiary support in favor of the "unmotivated" lead and his old-school romantic stubbornness.
In her too-brief time on-screen, Mirren gets to play with more than just action. She's the scary woman casually chatting on the phone while getting rid of bodies; the mother-figure who offers sage advice; the consummate actress going undercover (and spoofing Mirren's own work); the professional killer with the perfect shot; and the lover enjoying a tryst focused on her power just as much as her body. Rarely on-screen with her fellow antiheroes in Red 2, Victoria's scenes seem like they're from another, better movie — or perhaps just a CV Mirren crafted to show her range, and how well she could handle a starring action gig.
There's a graceful fluidity to Mirren's movements in Red 2, a comfort with weaponry that rivals both her male and female action counterparts. This is the choreography of experience, not maneuvering: The ease with which she falls into Victoria's world is undoubtedly the result of her years of work, not just cinematic trickery. Where Willis' Frank shows the boredom that arises from years of playing witty super-men, Mirren's Victoria represents the excitement that comes from mixing top acting talent with action and intrigue. As she fights in formalwear through Britain, Victoria offers a rallying cry for a female James Bond (or even better, an entirely new slick superspy who likes her martinis as they're supposed to be made — stirred and not shaken).
Ultimately, Red 2 works less as an action film than it does as an argument for a changing of the guard — that there will be magic if Hollywood retires the same handful of action heroes who face the same fights over and over again. At the very least, it's proof that studios not rest tentpole films on the shoulders of stars who look openly bored with their work. Hollywood recently discovered both the creative and commercial benefits of taking unsuspected dramatic men like Liam Neeson and morphing them into action heroes. Now it's time for Helen Mirren to get her shot.