Red 2


Helen Mirren takes aim.

Helen Mirren takes aim.

(2013) Spy Comedy (Summit) Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Byung Hun Lee, Neal McDonough, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Thewlis, Brian Cox, Tim Pigott-Smith, Garrick Hagon, Jong Kun Lee, Steven Berkoff, Philip Arditti, Mitchell Mullen, Martin Sims, Tristan D. Lalla, Nathalie Buscombe. Directed by Dean Parisot

That pesky Internet. Just when you think you’ve found peace and quiet in a suburban retirement far from the stresses of your job, WikiLeaks goes and publishes a document that links you to a CIA plot back in ’79 to smuggle a WMD into Moscow. Now you can’t even shop at Costco without having wackos taking a shot at you.

That’s just what happens to Frank Moses (Willis), once the CIA’s most skilled assassin but now enjoying his golden years with his new lady Sarah (Parker). In fact, he is shopping at Costco with his somewhat bored Sarah when they are accosted by Marvin (Malkovich), Frank’s twitchy partner (you’d be twitchy too if you were fed LSD every day for several years) in the power tools aisle.

He lets Frank know that the two of them have been linked to some operation called Nightshade that neither one of them can remember and now it looks like there’s a big nasty storm headed in their direction. Turns out he’s right.

It also turns out going on the run with assassins – including Han (Lee), the world’s best – after them is just the kick in the pants Frank and Sarah’s relationship needs. Of course having homicidal Victoria (Mirren), one of the finest killers-for-hire there is – on your side doesn’t hurt. Frank and his crew will need to break Dr. Bailey (Hopkins) out of jail, never mind that he’s supposed to be dead. Oh, and the CIA has sent Jack Horton (McDonough) to see that Frank is captured and interrogated none to gently and it turns out Han has a personal grudge against Han and all Frank wanted to do was get a new barbecue grill.

Movies like this need to be lighthearted and Parisot uses an undeniably light touch. Maybe too light – the movie is almost devoid of weight like it was filmed on the International Space Station using elaborate sets to make the audience think it was completely earthbound. There’s no substance here – and there isn’t required to be – but the lack of it might turn those who want a little meat with their mousse off.

Willis excels at these kind of roles these days, the weary hero. If you’ve seen his last three Die Hard movies you’ll know what I mean. He is a bit grumpy and a bit smart alecky but when the rubber hits the road the man is still one of the best action stars in Hollywood. Some might sniff that he’s playing the same part he has for 30 years but then again that’s true for most of the actors in Hollywood in one way or another.

Mirren steals the show though. She’s got that patrician look and accent and when she pulls out a big effin’ gun, she looks so gleeful it’s hard not to feel a surge of the same emotion yourself. She has some interesting byplay with Parker, who is a lot better here than she was in the first movie where she was a bit overwrought. She goes more subtle here and it works better.

Lee is impressive; I’m hoping that we see more of him in similar roles. With most of the great martial arts action stars aging, it’s nice to know that there are some guys ready to step in and fill the void. Malkovich, of course, is Malkovich. He does what he does

The first Red was fun, unusual and unexpected. While its sequel retains much of the first quality, it lacks the second two. Still, there’s enough of that one quality to allow the audience to have a pretty good time at the movies. It may be disposable, but sometimes that’s just what you need.  

REASONS TO GO: Mind-numbing fun. The cast is a hoot.

REASONS TO STAY: Exceedingly lightweight. Has lost its novelty.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action of the gunplay variety, some car chase property destruction, a little crude language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hopkins and Cox have played Hannibal Lecter in the movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100; the critics weren’t so enamored of this one but at least they didn’t hate it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Back to the Future Part III

Advertisements

Fair Game (2010)


Fair Game

Sean Penn may look intense but all he hears is "blah, blah, blah."

(2010) True Life Drama (Summit) Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Noah Emmerich, Liraz Charchi, Nicholas Sadler, Tom McCarthy, Ty Burrell, Jessica Hecht, Norbert Leo Butz, Rebecca Rigg, David Andrews, Bruce McGill, Sam Shepard, Polly Holliday. Directed by Doug Liman

 

When the story broke, it was almost something out of a John Le Carre novel. An American spy, outed in a newspaper and get this – orchestrated by her own government who were trying to discredit her husband who had written a report that basically accused that government of going to war over reasons that were false, that the administration knew were false.

Sounds like a novel, but this is what really happened to Valerie Plame (Watts). She was an operative for the CIA with expertise in the Middle East which at the time is where most of our intelligence efforts had shifted to with the fall of the Communist bloc. However to her neighbors, she worked a boring job in DC and was married to Joe Wilson (Penn), the former U.S. Ambassador to Niger.

He is contracted to do a fact-finding mission there to determine if Saddam Hussein is purchasing weapons-grade Uranium from Niger. Wilson checks with his contacts and not only is it not likely that they could be getting the uranium, it’s not physically possible. Satisfied, he returns home and presents his findings to the CIA who are busy amassing intelligence that the White House has ordered in order to justify their impending invasion of Iraq.

His wife Valerie is as well, trying to get hold of Iraqi nuclear scientists to debrief. They’re all telling her the same thing – there is no WMD program, it was dismantled after the first Gulf War. She is putting some of her contacts in danger so she is arranging for them to leave the country.

Then in the State of the Union address, President Bush refers to Uranium that Iraq is buying from Niger for their weapons program. Wilson is at first puzzled and then incensed; and he publishes an op-ed piece in the New York Times disputing the President’s facts.

Shortly thereafter in another newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Robert Novak publishes a piece naming his wife as a covert CIA operative, quoting highly-placed sources in the White House (who allegedly turned out to be Richard Armitage, although Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are all looked at as possible sources as well in the film).

From then on, Plame’s position at the CIA was untenable. She was forced to resign and her contacts were compromised, with a number of them paying for her outing with their lives. Wilson was livid; he wanted to fight the situation, believing that this was a vindictive government functionary getting back at him through his wife (a theory which many hold to be true).

Plame was a little bit more low-key. However the strain was telling, not only in her relationships with her neighbors, friends and family (there’s a great scene with her parents, played by Shepard and Holliday) and her husband. The media scrutiny (which Wilson embraced to a certain extent) threatened to tear their marriage apart.

Liman who directed Mr. and Mrs. Smith about fictional secret agents gets to play with a real one here. This isn’t a spy film though; it’s more of a political thriller and even though we know how it ends up (not a spoiler but we wind up going to war anyway). Liman gives the movie the pacing of a suspense thriller despite it being a biographical drama and that’s definitely the right way to go.

Of course, he benefits from having Penn, one of the best actors in the business and he delivers a typically outstanding performance. Joe is a bit of a hothead and a blowhard with a deep-seated sense of right and wrong; when he sees something that offends that sense he goes after it. He speaks his mind, sometimes at the expense of friendships. He does have some failings – he likes the spotlight a little too much for Valerie’s liking – but his intelligence and passion are undeniable.

Watts has less to work with than Penn does but she proves able with a part that has some subtlety to it missing from the more in-your-face Joe. She is more concerned with holding her family together but that’s hard to do when you’re getting threatening phone calls and neighbors asking about your espionage activities. Plame also has to deal with the country she worked so hard to protect literally betraying her and throwing her to the wolves.

The movie is largely based on the two memoirs written separately by Joe and Valerie and Liman rather than couching the film behind aliases here names names which is to be admired. I’m sure there are people in the previous administration who think this movie is beyond the pale but hey, you reap what you sow after all.

The overall tone is pretty dry to be honest but there is a certain courage of its own convictions. Yes, the movie certainly takes a specific viewpoint and if you disagree with it you probably won’t think much of the film, Sean Penn or no Sean Penn. Also, please understand what you see here isn’t gospel; while the Wilsons vetted the movie and what they understood was happening at the time is what we see. What went on behind the scenes is pure conjecture and while it’s based on educated guesses, chances are we’ll never really know how things went down.

Still, the movie at its best shows the effect of this kind of scandal on a family and that’s when I really enjoyed it. The political discussion while interesting is ultimately just an empty gesture that really won’t contribute much to your understanding of the actual events; perhaps we all see what we want to in these situations.

WHY RENT THIS:  A look at the inside of a scandal most of us barely knew through the news.  Penn and Watts give typically strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the facts from the movie have been disputed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words but not much else to impede family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the “Freedom of Expression” award from the National Board of Review.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In a somewhat surprising and welcome move, the audio commentary is provided by Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame – the real ones.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $24.2M on a $22M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The General’s Daughter

Green Zone


Green Zone

Matt Damon gets medieval on some critic's ass.

(Universal) Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs, Khalid Abdalla, Igal Naor, Said Faraj, Jerry Della Salla, Raad Rawi, Michael O’Neill, Nicoye Banks, Sean Huze, Paul Karsko. Directed by Paul Greengrass

Perhaps one of the most important questions of our time is why we invaded Iraq in 2003. It is the standard by which the United States will be judged as a nation as we move forward into the 21st century; our actions in invading a sovereign nation without true justification have tarnished our reputation forever.

Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is in charge of a team of soldiers whose mission is to locate and neutralize weapons of mass destruction the Iraqis have hidden in caches around Baghdad and the surrounding areas. It is early in the war, and the country is still waiting on definitive proof that the Saddam Hussein had been indeed manufacturing WMD.

He is sent to a location which is being peppered by a sniper in a nearby tower. Iraqi citizens are looting the industrial site like crazy and Miller is concerned that some of them may be getting away with dangerous material that could be used against Iraqi civilians or coalition soldiers. Despite the fact that the site isn’t secure, he orders his men to go in and take out the sniper, which they do in a professional, efficient manner. Once he gets into the site, however, he discovers nothing there – no weapons, nothing dangerous, only toilet parts and years worth of pigeon droppings.

This turns out to be the third straight supposed WMD site that the team has been to that has been completely devoid of anything resembling weapons. Miller knows that the intelligence they have been getting is faulty. While the military command is taking the position that the Iraqis had moved the weapons from these sites, Miller knows that there had never been weapons there. He questions the intelligence at a staff meeting attended by CIA analyst Martin Brown (Gleeson) who approaches Miller afterwards, completely in agreement with Miller that there is something fishy going on. He gives Miller his card with the request that he keep him in the loop as to what Miller’s team finds on their next mission, which Miller agrees to do.

In the meantime, Clark Poundstone (Kinnear), a high-ranking functionary in the White House with Pentagon connections, is escorting an Iraqi exile (Rawi) home to Baghdad. Poundstone is eager to install him as the new leader of Iraq. Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Ryan) is covering the trip; it was her articles on government reports about WMD that helped turn the public towards invasion. She knows that most of the government intelligence came from a single source; a high-ranking Iraqi government official known only as “Magellan.” Because no WMD had turned up despite the Army’s best efforts to find them, she is concerned that her story asserting that they were there may turn out to be false. She wants to talk to Magellan directly but Poundstone demurs, stating that the debriefing process is ongoing.

While on his next assignment fruitlessly digging for a possible underground WMD site, Miller is approached by an Iraqi national named Freddie (Abdalla) who informs him of a meeting taking place in a nearby home of high-ranking Iraqi officials. Something about Freddie’s story rings true to Miller and he decides to go investigate, even though Wilkins (Della Salla), his second-in-command, worries that they are being led into an ambush.

The soldiers enter the house to find that such a meeting is indeed taking place and that one of the participants is none other than General Al-Rawi (Naor), Saddam’s highest-ranking military official and certainly the man who would have the most information about any WMD that might be hidden in Iraq. Although Al-Rawi escapes, he leaves behind a notebook which Miller is anxious to deliver to his CIA contact Brown. However, when the prisoners taken from the meeting are abducted by American Special Forces soldiers led by the arrogant Briggs (Isaacs), Miller knows that something is more than just terribly wrong.

This is ostensibly an action thriller and it is by no means meant to be a documentary about actual events in Iraq. The premise, however, is valid – to this day we have yet to locate any WMD in Iraq and the entire premise for invasion has been justifiably labeled a sham. Whether Greengrass’ theory is true or not, it is merely that – a theory – and certainly our government is guilty at the very least of incompetently not fact-checking to make sure that there were indeed WMD in Iraq.

Some of the events here happened as portrayed. The CIA was left out of the WMD loop and CIA sources reported at the time that there hadn’t been any WMD since the first Gulf War. President Bush did land on an aircraft carrier and proclaim “Mission Accomplished,” which was a premature pronouncement of historic proportions. Public opinion was turned towards a series of news articles and television reports that reported the presence of WMD in Iraq that later turned out to have been false. The American people were indeed lied to.

But that’s neither here nor there as far as this review should be concerned. What is important is that the movie is worth seeing, and it is indeed that. Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass had previously collaborated on the second two movies of the Bourne trilogy, and those are still regarded as some of the best action films of recent years. Green Zone does indeed meet those standards and Damon is one of the primary reasons why.

As Roy Miller, he is a professional soldier, assiduously trained but with a mind of his own. He sees bad information at every turn and no matter how many times his commanders tell him just to look the other way and do his job without question, he can’t bring himself to do it. Yeah, he’s a bit of a super-soldier in that he seems incapable of being stopped but quite frankly, that’s okay in an action film where we expect our heroes to be somewhat unstoppable.

Kinnear makes for a smarmy villain, a viper in weasel’s clothes that exploits political necessity and is willing to do whatever it takes to cover up his crimes. Kinnear, who of late has been playing lighter roles, excels here in a role that is a bit outside his comfort zone. Gleeson, who is one of the best character actors working today (see In Bruges if you don’t believe me), is solid here. He is gruff, grumpy and a grizzled veteran of the Middle East who sees through the bull pucky and understands the situation for what it is; a cover-up. He is jaded and worn down from years of being assigned to one of the most complex, volatile regions on Earth, but still maintains his own principles nonetheless.

Greengrass utilizes the hand-held camera quite a bit during the action sequences to convey the chaos of the scene, and while I don’t necessarily have a problem with the concept, I think he overuses it here. After awhile, I actually had to  turn my head from the screen in order to stave off the dizziness and queasiness that accompanies that kind of cinematography. A little bit of hand-held goes a long way, gentlemen.

What I like most about Green Zone is that it is a morality play disguised as an action movie. While the filmmaker’s leanings are quite easy to suss out, it does invite you to think also about what blindly accepting the word of any government. After all, even the best governments are made up of human beings, and those human beings often have agendas of their own, agendas that might not necessarily be in the best interest of their own country. That’s the scariest part of the movie.

REASONS TO GO: This is a morality play wrapped in an action movie framework. Damon is rock-solid as Miller.   

REASONS TO STAY: Greengrass uses the hand-held camera to such an extent that even audience members without vertigo issues were getting dizzy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, including some scenes of torture and foul language throughout. Only for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Lawrie Dayne is loosely based on Judith Miller of the New York Times.

HOME OR THEATER: As one of the first big action movies of the year you may be tempted to see it in the theater, but quite frankly, the overuse of shaky hand-held cam shots make this a better fit for the home screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 12 Rounds