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Death Be Not Proud
Frank Masi / Summit Entertainment

In this commentary: Red 2 and Ways to Live Forever.

Death be not proud . . .

I wonder what John Donne would make of two new movies opening this week. Both defy Death—whether personified with a capital D or not—and yet both do so from very different perspectives.

And both, in the end, must confront it head on.

RED 2, about aging superspies who dance with Death on a daily basis, almost mocks mortality. In this rollicking comedy sequel to 2010's RED, senior special agents play shoot-'em-up 'round the world, smiling, even laughing, in the face of lethal danger. When Helen Mirren, the smokin'-hottest 67-year-old thespian on the planet, makes gunplay look sleek and sexy while picking off the bad guys, one can't help but laugh along.

And yet when these professional assassins really think about it, when they truly look Death in the eye, their fears become evident. Mirren's character wants to be held and comforted when her demise seems inevitable. John Malkovich's character is so paranoid about dying, he's convinced everyone is trying to kill him. And Bruce Willis's character just wants to get out of the business altogether and attempt to live a normal life—and the film even begins with him shopping in a Costco to prove it.

Frank Masi / Summit Entertainment

While RED 2 opens this weekend in almost 3,000 theaters, Ways to Live Forever, a charming little indie, opens in just eight (though it will hit more cities in coming weeks). Its title implies a quest for immortality, but that's only true in some ways. In others, the central character, a 12-year-old boy dying of leukemia, courageously confronts his inexorable outcome—and he concludes, like Donne, that though Death may seem "mighty and dreadful," in the end, "thou art not so." It's a sweet piece of cinema that handles a sensitive topic with tenderness and light—with a refreshing spiritual perspective that is neither saccharine nor overly sentimental.

Saccharine and sentimental are two words that also would not describe RED 2, the follow-up to one of the most enjoyable moviegoing surprises of 2010. In that film, a cadre of AARP-aged special ops agents—all Retired, Extremely Dangerous, hence the title—band together to bring down some bad guys. In that film, Frank Moses (Willis) was living a quiet, retired life when the CIA decided to bump him off simply for having knowledge they didn't want him to have. On the run, Frank scoops up his love interest Sarah (the sublime Mary-Louise Parker), and recruits several old comrades to help him—including Marvin (Malkovich), a former CIA black op; Victoria (Mirren), a one-time MI6 spy; and Ivan (Brian Cox), a gruff-but-lovable Russian ex-agent . . . who also just happens to be Victoria's lover, a subplot that makes for some hilarious scenes in both films.

In the sequel, Frank has now settled down with Sarah, and is again trying to live a quiet, retired, normal life—evidenced as they walk the aisles of Costco, shopping for everyday items. But Frank soon learns that Interpol is trying to kill him, so he's on the run again, and shooting and shenanigans ensue.

Frank and his cronies also learn that a nuclear weapon, leftover from the Cold War, may be armed and activated somewhere in Russia, so they track down its creator (Anthony Hopkins) in an attempt to defuse the bomb and prevent global warfare. Meanwhile, a martial arts and weapons guru (Lee Byung-hun) is also hunting Frank, trying to collect a $20 million bounty. It all adds up to mayhem and madness, some fun fight scenes and car chases, and quite a few yuks. There are several unexpected twists (who's really a bad guy, and who isn't?), and it's worth the price of a ticket to see Parker's many brilliant facial expressions. But while her physical comedy never gets old, one of her co-stars does in a case of just too much being John Malkovich. Yeah, he has a goofy face and gets all the best one-liners ("I was touched that you cried at my funeral," "I knew she would play him like a banjo at an Ozark hoedown," "What happens in the Kremlin, stays in the Kremlin," yada yada yada). But it's all over the top, and grows tiresome.

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Death Be Not Proud