Criterion Sunday 611: Being John Malkovich (1999)

I can’t really be considered part of the cult following of Charlie Kaufman. The tone of his work just doesn’t resonate with me so much, and there’s a lot here too, in what must surely be considered his foundational work, that leaves me a little cold (though it clearly works for a lot of people). That said, like plenty of classic comedies (albeit with an ironic 90s tone), this film throws so much at the screen that plenty of it does hit, and some of it really is quite affectingly off the wall. Specifically, the way that the film utilises Cameron Diaz is very much against type, and Catherine Keener too has never been more striking (usually those two actresses would be playing these roles the other way round, you feel), but together they create an emotional bond via the mediation of the titular figure that almost erases John Cusack’s puppeteer from the film entirely. By the final third, things have been put in motion that pull the film off in all kinds of weird directions, and the constant accrual of detail makes for a rather rich and perplexing series of thematic explosions that have a cinematic pyrotechnic value at the very least, though some even achieve emotional resonance. It remains a film I still admire more than fully love, but that’s on me; it’s a singular American achievement both coming out of the 1990s and drawing a line under it for a new decade.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Spike Jonze; Writer Charlie Kaufman; Cinematographer Lance Acord; Starring John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Orson Bean; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 27 May 2000 (and on VHS at home, Wellington, May 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 29 January 2023).

RED (2010)

At some level this is an unlikely franchise — it’s basically just an excuse for lots of quite famous actors to have a bit of fun and, for many of them, to do the kind of action film they don’t generally get to appear in — but as both this and its sequel RED 2 (2013) show, actors having fun can sometimes, very occasionally, translate to an enjoyable cinematic experience for the audience. It may not be thought-provoking or particularly original, but it’s good to pass a few hours with some laughs in the company of some pleasant people.

The key, of course, is the cartoonishness, and as with so many recent films, this one is based on a comic book. There are plenty of big action setpieces, but it’s all in aid of a very self-consciously old-fashioned story — something to do with the participants in a secret mission in Guatemala in the early-80s that went catastrophically wrong all being killed off to protect a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, which pulls us into that Cold War world of po-faced 1980s films like Salvador and Missing (one of the participants in that secret mission is played a familiar character actor from the 80s, James Remar), but with a comic cartoon spin. It’s a different way of lightly setting out the collusion of the US executive and military (not to mention the Soviets, who also show up here) with shady Latin-American governments in that era to further their own interests, the application of the military-industrial complex so familiar from, say, Oliver Stone’s films.

The cast is dominated by character actors, including Helen Mirren very much playing against type just by being in this genre (and no doubt she took the gig for the chance to do the action scenes), but also Brian Cox as a camp Russian spy, Karl Urban as an impetuous young CIA agent, and John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman as Willis’s fellow retired spies (“Retired, Extremely Dangerous” is the acronym that gives the film its title). There’s also a small role for Ernest Borgnine as an archivist, linking the film to the 1980s via a different route (Borgnine was a central character on the very much espionage- and military-obssessed, but rather less comic, Airwolf TV series). However, it’s the (comparatively) younger actor Mary-Louise Parker who walks away with the film as the viewer surrogate, Sarah, a regular woman holding down a job at a pension fund call centre, who coordinates a vast array of facial responses and sarcastic rejoinders to the ridiculous situations she’s put in. Some of these skirt all too close to a non-cartoonish world — as Frank, the main character, Willis breaks in rather creepily to Sarah’s apartment and kidnaps her (for her own safety), but the writers don’t shirk away from the implications of this (it’s not played as any kind of romantic gesture that will lead to their falling in love), and I think it’s handled as well as it could be, all things considered. For the most part though, Sarah has the upper hand even over the trained professional killers.

Already this year I’ve seen too many big blockbuster films that are filled with effects and whizz-bang boys-own nonsense but seem like joyless money-making enterprises (I’d say they were made more by accountants than filmmakers, but that’s too much of a cliché — I know some accountants and they’re lovely and interesting people, so I fear its the filmmakers’ fault). I’m hardly claiming that RED is not a money-making enterprise at heart, but at the very least it’s not joyless. It’s fun, and while thought-provoking moral conundrums can be nice, sometimes all you want from your summer blockbuster (or home video rental) is a bit of fun.

Director Robert Schwentke; Writers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (based on the comic book by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer); Cinematographer Florian Ballhaus; Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Tuesday 9 November 2010 (and on TV at home, London, Sunday 11 August 2013).

RED 2 (2013)

Of all the comic book-based franchises that this past decade has wrought, RED (2010) neither seemed to demand nor require a sequel. It was a pleasant, light-hearted confection about former government ‘black ops’ assassins just trying to retire in peace (its capitalised title being short for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”). Plenty of the original cast have returned for this second outing, and admirably it manages to retain much of the same breezy charm for what is essentially an entirely unnecessary film.

At its heart is the relationship between retired killer Frank (Bruce Willis) and ordinary office worker Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). In fact, I’d go so far as to say that all the action and espionage thriller hokum that give the film its narrative structure are just distractions from what is basically a romantic comedy: Frank is having trouble allowing Sarah autonomy within their relationship, and his friends from the first film, Marvin (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Helen Mirren), offer him counsel — generally while despatching Russian agents or kidnapping Iranian diplomats. It’s these little domestic moments, lit up by Parker’s agile facial expressions, that really make the film.

For quite patently the plot is overextended Cold War-era nonsense involving a secret nuclear device in Moscow created by Anthony Hopkins’ apparently mad scientist, who has since been imprisoned in London. This bomb is being chased down by Catherina Zeta-Jones as a Russian secret agent (double agent?), Victoria has been employed to go after Frank, while Lee Byung-Hun as a Korean contract killer is gunning for pretty much everyone.

Given all this, it’s just as well all the actors seem to be having fun, and it makes some of the longueurs (of which there are several) pass more easily to watch Malkovich, Willis and Parker work together. Like any good ensemble comedy, there’s a generosity towards the guest appearances, and no single actor is allowed to steal any scenes, though Parker comes closest. Mirren meanwhile gets to take charge as a competently lethal professional — with a brief comic detour into play-acting as Queen Elizabeth (though the first one here, mercifully) — and Malkovich pops up in a procession of ridiculous hats and costumes.

The film is too long and the plot too labyrinthine, but there is chemistry between Willis and Parker and, more importantly, there’s an underlying comic frisson. If the jokes aren’t quite as sustained as the first film, it doesn’t make this film any less likeable in an easygoing way. As long as you don’t go in expecting much, you should be able to glean a couple of hours of enjoyment from RED 2.

RED 2 film posterCREDITS
Director Dean Parisot; Writers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber; Cinematographer Enrique Chediak; Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 4 August 2013.