By Gary Dowell
Much like its 2010 predecessor, based on Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer’s comic book about elderly secret agents forced out of retirement after they’re targeted for elimination, Red 2 is free from lofty expectations. Red was a surprise sleeper hit that earned points from a smart script, fantastic casting, and the novelty of watching Helen Mirren kick ass, take names, and fire off a really BIG gun. Director Dean Parisot and screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber are content to stick with that formula; it’s not as fresh as its progenitor, but Red 2 somehow manages to skate by — barely.
This time around, ex-CIA super-agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is keeping a low profile while exploring domestic bliss with girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a situation she finds stale and boring. Enter Frank’s paranoid ex-partner Marvin (John Malkovich), who pulls the couple into a caper involving an suitcase-sized WMD called “Nightshade”, unwittingly smuggled into Moscow by Frank and Marvin during a botched Cold War mission.
The trio go on the run, pursued by sadistic special agent Jack Horton (Neal McDonough), vindictive assassin Han (Byung Hun Lee), and Frank’s former MI6 ally Victoria (Mirren, a sexier 60-something super-spy than James Bond could ever hope to be). Our heroes find unlikely allies in shady Russian spymaster Ivan (Brian Cox), the weapon’s mad creator Dr. Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), and Russian femme fatale Katja Petrov (Catherine Zeta-Jones) — who, much to Sarah’s consternation, is a former flame of Frank’s.
Shoot-outs, fist fights, car chases, ‘splosions, and romantic misunderstandings ensue. The story is an unnecessarily busy one that has the group bouncing from D.C. to Paris to London to Moscow and back to London at a pace that would make a travel agent’s head spin, but all that globe-trotting only seems to highlight the thin plot it’s meant to disguise. But this isn’t a National Geographic special, it’s an action flick, and in that sense it delivers in spades, with the appropriate degree of excess.
What makes Red 2 a better-than-average action movie, however, is its cast, even when they arrive late in the tale (Hopkins) or aren’t given much to do (McDonough and Cox); Dame Helen and Malkovich provide equal parts classy and weird, respectively; Lee gets the meatiest role in the West to date; Parker pulls of naive-but-sharp quite well, and Zeta-Jones providing her with an excellent foil. If there’s anyone who seems out-of-place, it’s Willis. He’s stuck with playing the straight man in the middle of an ensemble of eccentrics, and he seems to be going through the motions much as he did in A Good Day to Die Hard. C’mon Bruce, isn’t retirement supposed to be fun?