More or less a carbon copy of the first movie in terms of style, subtlety, tone, and general goodwill, Red 2 stills ekes out a marginally better review than its predecessor. The story about retired spies getting sucked back into their own lives might not be anything new and the plotting is still as wonky as it was before, but at least this time out there’s a better director at the helm and the same amount of energy. Fans will be excited to hear this, but those with only passing interest won’t have too much new to start doing cartwheels over it.
Retired CIA operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) have fallen into a bit of a slump romantically. Frank prefers to stay at home and lie low, while Sarah yearns for the adventure that brought them together in the first place. Faster than you can say Jewel of the Nile (and in a far better fashion than that sequel), Frank is drawn back into duty thanks to his life being targeted after repercussions from a botched protection job in 1979. Frank and his doofus spy buddy Marvin (John Malkovich) were once assigned to protect a brilliant, but long thought dead physicist (Anthony Hopkins), and now they have to track own where MI:6 has been keeping him hidden to help determine the location of a nuke lost somewhere in Moscow. Sarah tags along to Frank’s infinite chagrin, and they’re pursued by a hyperactive American spook (Neal McDonough), a Hong Kong master hitman (Byung-hun Lee) with an axe to grind right into Frank’s skull, and their own former friend and partner, Victoria (Helen Mirren).
The comedy is affable and relaxed, and the action sequences have a considerable amount of ingenuity despite what appears to be a lower budget this time out. An early on hand to hand combat sequence with Frank escaping from a safe house and a car chase through narrow alleyways are particular standouts. It’s really the only considerably edge the film has over the previous entry thanks to Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) being a markedly better action and comedy director than previous helmer Robert Schwentke (who this weekend also comes back to theatres with his not-press-screening-until-the-last-possible-second R.I.P.D.). Whereas the last film was a genial enough romp through old aged action tropes, it was marred by horrendous editing, no sense of pacing, and camera work that was at times baffling to watch. Parisot, on the other hand, stays on point, keeps things breezy, and actually produces a piece of work far tonally consistent with the Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer DC Comics source material.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all better, though. If anything, the logical gaps and contrivances that make up the third act of this one require some pretty massive suspension of disbelief and while the cast and the direction make it likable the story spins its wheels, almost wheezing into the conclusion after getting off to an almost ill advised fast start.
There’s also an overabundance of villains and side characters that could all easily have been chopped entirely or blended into one character. McDonough is fun to watch, but after the film’s opening he feels forgotten about almost entirely, which is a shame since he’s the strongest of the bunch. Lee contributes some pretty great hand-to-hand combat sequences, but he’s obviously only on hand to add some colour to the cast and little else. Perhaps the most shockingly useless of all of them, however, is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is the only cast member outright wasted as a Russian spy and former lover of Frank’s trying to steal all the credit and glory for their mission. She adds absolutely nothing except running time and needless conflict that makes the feel more convoluted than it should be.
But the returning cast aces their work once again. It’s nice to see Willis actually smiling in a role again following that sequel from earlier this year that I don’t think anyone wants to speak the name of. He’s animated, quipping, butt kicking Bruce, and that’s what the people want and the material never lets his character down. Malkovich gets to play Marvin as slightly less manic this time out, but he’s arguably a funnier and stronger character for it. Mirren still knocks it out of the park as the most inarguably badass and intelligent member of the lot, and Parker gets a chance to branch out and make Sarah a lot stronger and funnier than she was in the last outing.
The best of the new additions aside from McDonough and Parisot are easily Hopkins’ multi-layered and deranged scientist that’s been locked up for 32 years in a madhouse and a brief, silly, and welcome appearance from David Thewlis as a dealer of secrets-slash-wine connoisseur. Aside from them, this one is almost beat for beat the same thing as the original. Fortunately, the cast and the humour made Red a mildly passable diversion. By virtue of the fact that this one is made by someone who has a firm handle on the material, it’s actually one ever-so-slight notch above the previous mark despite the other faults it creates in its wake.