2010’s Red, based on the titular Warren Ellis graphic novel, was a fairly enjoyable romp, a goofy, ditzy diversion that focused on a group of retired government operatives who got drawn back into the world of intrigue and assassination. Hijinks most definitely ensued, and the film was a modest success thanks to some solid comedic performances by its veteran cast, sure-handed, workmanlike direction by Robert Schwentke, and a breezy, uncomplicated script. It was not the type of film I’d have guessed would garner a sequel, but Hollywood is a strange and unpredictable beast.
And thus, Red 2 is born. This time directed by Dean Parisot (Fun With Dick And Jane, Galaxy Quest), the sequel does little to deviate from the formula that made the original so enjoyable, and as a result is a fun, modestly exciting, occasionally hilarious summer flick that I can safely recommend, even as I acknowledge that the film isn’t particularly well-scripted or creative, and is unlikely to be particularly memorable. The plot is much the same — Frank (Bruce Willis) is still trying his hand at retirement, much to the chagrin of his action-starved girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), when he finds out that due to a series of nefarious machinations, a contract has been taken out on him. He’s once again joined by the madcap (though much more subdued this time around) Marvin (John Malkovich). He’s stalked by the world’s best assassin’s, including old friend Victoria (the always-luminous Helen Mirren) and Han (Byung-hun Lee), and encounters an oddball assortment of villains, criminals, weirdos and wackos, including Anthony Hopkins as a kooky genius, Catherine Zeta-Jones as the femme fatale from Frank’s past, and a brilliantly menacing Neal McDonough as the government spook hunting them down.
Though often entertaining, the film is rife with problems, a primary one being that its pacing is all over the place. It begins with a placid, dryly clever opening, then abruptly switches into a full-blown action movie. From there it’s simply a whirlwind of vignettes set in different international cities, each featuring its own quick moment of exposition and setup, quickly followed by increasingly silly, breathless action sequences, ad nauseum. Red 2 never bothers to stop and take in its surroundings, which means that a) a lot of stunning location scenery is shamefully wasted, and b) it’s hard to ever feel like there’s an actual plot since it keeps changing direction every 10 minutes. And there is a plot, even if it’s not a particularly inventive one — decades ago at the height of the cold war, the kooky genius developed a super weapon and people think Frank and company either know where it is, or that they have it and plan to use it. It’s a fast-and-loose script that collapses utterly under even the most cursory of inspection, and as a result the story never really feels like a story at all, but rather a series of ridiculous short films featuring the same actors.
And it’s truly unfortunate that it is so lazily scripted, because most of the actors do their best to inject a healthy amount of joy into the picture. Willis is a surprisingly charming combination of haggard, beleaguered, and lethal. Malkovich is suitably eccentric, though now with unexpected insight into Frank and Sarah’s relationship issues (which are the absolute least interesting part of the film). Hopkins is delightfully batty, Zeta-Jones is archly sexy and quite fun to watch, and smaller roles doled out to the likes of Brian Cox and David Thewlis create what can only be described as an embarrassment of riches, talent-wise. That said, there are three actors that absolutely steal the film: Neal McDonough, as a far more psychotic version of the archetype played by Karl Urban in the first film, is bloodthirstily engaging and I found myself looking forward to his scenes. Helen Mirren is once again one of the strongest parts, playing a cold-blooded, utterly badass killer with grace and style and a wickedly aristocratic air. But the greatest surprise was Byung-hun Lee’s Han. Lee has been blipping across radars for a while now, in everything from I Saw The Devil to The Good, The Bad, and The Weird to GI Joe: Retaliation. He’s devilishly handsome, graceful and smooth in his every move, and absolutely, viciously spectacular in a fight scene. What was most unexpected was how goddamn funny he can be, and his interplay with Willis and Mirren was a constant source of hilarity.
There is another assortment of nutty action scenes that round out the film, but the truth is that you’re not there to see the action so much as you’re there to see these actors and how they act in the midst of it. And perhaps that’s the fundamental flaw with the script — it doesn’t really work very hard. It throws together some rudimentary plot elements, a series of solid action setpieces, and then proceeds to let its actors do the heavy lifting. That tactic actually works quite well, simply because of the overflow of talent (except for Mary-Louise Parker, who I love generally but is a horrendous drag here), until the final third of the film when you start to realize that you know exactly how it’s going to play out and worse, you don’t particularly care. The joy of watching the actors play off of each other is certainly there, but the story itself is so vacuous (save for some genuinely snappy, quick-witted dialogue) that it gets quite frustrating. Is Red 2 fun to watch? I suppose so. I certainly laughed a good bit, and I enjoyed watching everyone play their parts. I just wished that the writers had done theirs as well.