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.

Image: 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.

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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.

Willis is typical suave-and-snarky Willis, and that's mostly a good thing. Mirren is, as noted earlier, the sexiest near-septuagenarian superspy on Earth—and there's a fun wink-wink scene in which she plays the Queen of England gone nutters, a nod to her Oscar-winning performance in the title role of The Queen. Catherine Zeta-Jones makes an extended but mostly meh appearance as one of Frank's former flames, and though the 75-year-old Hopkins, playing a mad scientist, mostly dials it in, he's such a great actor that it's still a solid performance. But Parker's character is the cherry on top of it all; her Sarah will make you laugh again and again.

There's also moments of levity in Ways to Live Forever, which tells the story of Sam, a 12-year-old boy who declares at the beginning of the film, while making a video diary, "By the time you see this, I'll probably be dead." He's very matter-of-fact about it, and as we soon learn, even quite curious to learn more about his disease and the process of dying. Sam (Robbie Kay) is more eager to explore these things than his friend Felix (Alex Etel, best known for the lead role in 2004's Millions, one of my favorite films), who also has a terminal illness, but they take the journey together at the urging of their private instructor (Greta Scacchi). When she asks them to consider "ways to live forever," she says, "There is something eternal we can leave behind: Works of art." As evidence, she hands them books (including Peter Pan) and DVDs (including Frank Capra's Meet John Doe). Sam takes the assignment seriously, and vows to leave behind his own works of art—the video diary, and a journal in which he records his feelings and draws fascinating pictures.

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But the crux of the story follows three principal threads: Sam's relationship with his father, who is so grief-stricken that he ends up distancing himself from his son; Sam's "bucket list" of things he wants to do before he dies; and Sam's important questions about death and dying. The first subplot follows a redeeming arc that you might expect, and ends on an uplifting note. But the second and third storylines are the most interesting.

Sam's wish list is short and to the point:

  • Be a famous scientist
  • Watch 18-rated (Britain's equivalent of an R rating) horror films
  • Go up down escalators
  • Ride in an airship
  • Be a teenager
  • Drink, smoke, and have a girlfriend
  • See a ghost
  • Ride in a spaceship and see the stars
  • Break a world record

Sam decides early on that only two of them—the ones involving horror movies and escalators—are actually attainable, and declares the other items "more like wishes, really." But Felix won't hear of it, telling Sam that they're all within reach. And it's fun—sometimes silly, sometimes sweet—to see how these things play out. One such scene involves Felix's cousin pretty cousin Kayleigh, who ends up playing a vital role in making more than one of Sam's wishes come true.

But most captivating is Sam's ever-growing list of what he calls Questions Nobody Answers. By the end of the film, he has asked eight:

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1) "How do they know when you've died?" Sam and Felix consult the search engine Ask Jeeves for the answer, reading about cases of near-death experiences.

2) "Why does God make children get ill?" The question prompts perhaps the movie's most insightful exchange. Felix proposes two answers: One, that God doesn't exist, or two, that God is evil and tortures kids for fun. Sam counters: "Or three, he's like a Big Doctor. He makes people ill so he can make them better people, to make them less selfish." Felix shoots back: "Four, there is no reason." Sam considers this, and then has the last word: "Five, there is a reason, but we're too stupid to understand it." Wow.

3) "What would happen if someone wasn't really dead?" Sam is concerned about being buried alive, but his nurse (Natalia Tena) assures him it'll never happen.

4) "Does it hurt to die?" The dictionary doesn't provide a satisfactory answer, but Felix eventually does, in a most poignant manner.

5) "What does a dead person look like, or feel like?" Again, Felix provides the answer . . . and that's hardly a spoiler.

6) "Why do people have to die?" Suffice it to say that while Sam doesn't necessarily find the perfect answer, his relationship with his distant father takes a turn for the better.

7) "Where do you go after you've died?"

And 8) "Will the world still be here when I'm gone?"

You'll have to watch the movie to see how those last two are resolved. But the film refuses to give pat answers, and the results are thoughtful and moving.

In the end, Sam would agree that Death be not proud, and that, when all is said and Donne, "One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die." I don't know that the characters in RED 2 could confidently say the same.

Note: Ways to Live Forever, which won a number of children's film fest awards and the audience award at the Heartland Film Festival, has partnered with a number of organizations to raise awareness and funds for fighting children's cancer and leukemia.

Caveat Spectator

RED 2 is rated PG-13 for pervasive action and violence including frenetic gunplay, and for some language and drug material. The violence is typical of a comic-book-ish film—lots of it, but nothing graphic or gory—indeed, death, even of "bad guys," is often treated with humor and flippancy. There's very little sexual content; just a few low-cut dresses. Language is relatively tame for a PG-13 film, but includes several uses of God's name in vain.

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Ways to Live Forever is rated PG-13 for thematic elements—which is a shame, because it's pretty much just a PG film throughout. In one scene, underage characters smoke a cigarette and down two shot glasses of a cherry-flavored liquor, but those seem to be the only elements that would push it to PG-13. Still, parents may use caution and discernment because the topic of death—of children dying of terminal illness—is prevalent throughout. But for older children and teens, it's great fodder for discussion, especially about the meaning of death, and what happens after we die.