With the concept of retired secret agents pressed back into service by imminent threats to their lives, 2010’s Red benefited from a wave of enthusiasm for high-octane baby boomer action comedies, now mostly either forgotten or entering their second or third iterations. By now the interest factor in a Red sequel is more in the execution than almost anything else, particularly since Red 2 doesn’t have a whole lot new to offer.
Not that it isn’t entertaining, but the film’s premise is certainly well past its “use by” date, resulting in another passably palatable sequel distinguished by a lack of narrative and stylistic coherence that could potentially underpin a really viable franchise. While Red 2 could benefit from the shift to a mid-summer release, the field of openers and holdovers is also well-crowded with comedy and action options, which might serve to divert attention at the box office. Now a happily contented man indulging his domestic instincts, retired CIA field agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) has settled down with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the much younger woman who fell in love with him after he repeatedly saved her from various attempts on her life by the CIA, FBI and various law enforcement agencies in Red.
But coupled life has gotten rather routine for Sarah, so when Frank’s perennially paranoid former partner Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) unexpectedly turns up spouting warnings about a plot to take them out, Sarah’s more than ready to listen, despite Frank’s resistance. He’s quickly persuaded, however, when a car bomb kills Marvin, and he’s dragged in for questioning about a clandestine Cold War-era mission called “Nightshade” that he’s suspected of having coordinated. Denying any knowledge, Frank quickly becomes a liability to Pentagon special agent Jack Horton (Neal McDonough), who’s about to finish him off when Marvin turns up very much alive and well-armed, rescuing Frank as they go on the run, with Sarah once again in tow.
Nightshade, it turns out, was a briefcase nuke that Frank and Marvin unwittingly helped smuggle into the Soviet Union in the 70s. Its whereabouts are currently unknown — even to them — regardless of the opinion of a rogue group within the Pentagon, which is determined to retrieve it. Unable to bring in the former CIA spooks, however, the DOD recruits a couple of expert assassins: Frank’s former MI6 British counterpart Victoria (Helen Mirren) and ruthless South Korean contract killer Han (Byung Hun Lee), setting off a chase across Europe to determine the location of the Nightshade device.
In Paris, the Americans meet up with Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a Russian agent and Frank’s former flame, who’s assigned to locate Nightshade for the Kremlin. Her amorous reunion with Frank traps him between Sarah’s ire and the mission exigencies, but when Han arrives heavily armed and primed to eliminate Frank and Marvin, a fortuitous discovery sends them back to London to retrieve elderly scientist Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), a weapons expert whom Frank believes died during the Nightshade operation.
By now Victoria has rejoined her old comrades, leading Frank deep within a British psych prison to extract Bailey, an addled genius with apparent memory loss and no clear idea of what might have transpired four decades ago in Moscow — which is exactly where they’ll have to go to seek out the weapon, if they can manage to counter Han’s repeated ambushes, Horton and the federal agents on their tail and an installation full of Russian military experts.
Dipping back into the source material created for DC Comics by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, returning screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber effectively revive their team of “retired, extremely dangerous” characters, but then subject them to an uninspired, generic narrative that rarely rises above the strictly routine.
Fortunately, these characters still have some life left in them, even if the spark has diminished somewhat. Action-comedy has long been Willis’ strong suit, which he reprises here with aplomb, although rarely appearing to completely revel in the role of Frank Moses, as he did in the original film. An ongoing gag about his domestic tendencies plays well against type, but when the action thickens he relies more on ironic facial expressions and all-out physicality, rather than a more refined comedic performance. Nobody does nutty quite like Malkovich and if anything he’s in even finer form throughout the sequel, amping up the paranoia and angst to an almost contagious level.
Once again providing the catalyst that makes the Frank-Marvin deadly-kooky double threat work so well, Parker might be the best of the three. Sarah’s character and screen time have been noticeably improved upon — her gently humorous line readings and expertly timed physical comedy end up stealing more than a few scenes. With a supporting cast that includes Academy Award winners Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Catherine Zeta-Jones, a director could hardly go astray. Mirren adds that touch of class that’s delightfully upended by Victoria’s deadly serious determination and skillful weapons handling. Zeta-Jones nicely pulls off Russian spy Katja’s mix of allure and menace, along with Brian Cox returning as Ivan, her romantic Russian counterpart with a Victoria fixation.
Hopkins proves almost too much of a good thing, calibrating his prodigious talent to impressively shift Bailey’s character from gently droll to threateningly unhinged in the narrative’s major plot twist. Byung and David Thewlis as an unpredictable wild-card character are both effective, if rather underused.
Dean Parisot — taking the directorial reigns from Robert Schwentke – dials the film’s overall tone and action down a notch or two from the original. With such an accomplished cast, globetrotting locations and alternating shootouts and chase scenes of prodigious proportions, a degree of directorial elan might seem superfluous, but downplaying a distinctive visual style ends up holding the entire proceedings back a bit.
Whether there’s enough gas left in the tank for another sequel might depend as much on the age and enthusiasm of the actors as it does on the movie’s performance. But when it comes to this crew of aging action heroes, it’s best to never say “retired.”
Opens: July 19 (Summit Entertainment)
Production company: A di Bonaventura Pictures Production
Cast: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Byung Hun Lee, Brian Cox, David Thewlis, Neal McDonough
Director: Dean Parisot
Screenwriters: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mark Vahradian
Executive producers: Jake Myers, David Ready
Director of photography: Enrique Chediak
Production designer: Jim Clay
Costume designer: Beatrix Aruna Pasztor
Editor: Don Zimmerman
Music: Alan Silvestri
Rated PG-13, 116 minutes