Everyone looks to be having fun in Red 2, an action film that doesn’t feel the need to brood.
If you’re looking for a poster child for the sequelitis that has afflicted Hollywood, Bruce Willis would be a worthy candidate. This year alone, he reprised his most enduring role in A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth outing for that series, and joined the G.I. Joe franchise for its second go-around. Last year, he appeared in The Expendables 2 and he is slated to be in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For next year.
So it is no surprise that this summer brings yet another sequel for Willis. In Red 2, he returns as Frank Moses, a former CIA agent who can’t escape his past. That past is premised on the acronym "RED," which -- as you may recall -- alludes to the Retired, Extremely Dangerous ex-spies who are considered by their next generational replacements to be especially lethal, and so, in need of monitoring, containment, or worse.
Indeed, in the first film, Frank was forced out of retirement when a hit squad tried to take him out. He took the civilian Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) on the run with him, and reconnected with fellow former operatives Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), and Victoria (Helen Mirren): the result was action-movie mayhem spiced with old people being "eccentric," not a terrible combination in this case. Red offered a great cast who chewed their way through scenes and never took themselves very seriously. Just so, Red 2 pulls off the trick that eludes most sequels, giving the audience more of what worked in the original without being an exact and lumbering retread.
The new film opens on Frank and Sarah at Costco. They have settled into a mundane domesticity in the suburbs, which suits Frank just fine, since he wants nothing more than to have a long and safe life with the woman he loves. Sarah, however, is starting to get bored. Lucky for her -- and us -- Marvin shows up at the Costco, raving about a plot to have them all killed, which sends everyone spiraling into a new adventure.
They learn that their imminent termination is motivated by charges that they are international terrorists. And so of course they must travel internationally (from Paris to London to Moscow) to track down culprits, redeem themselves, and probably save the world too. This last idea is underlined when they pursue a weapon of mass destruction codenamed Nightshade (because such things must have codenames) that has been hidden for 35 years. It's best not to try to impose any logic on the plot, which is largely incomprehensible. Red 2 is merely an excuse to spend a couple of hours with the characters again.
And that's fine. Marvin persists with his full-on crazy conspiracy theories (and Malkovich is delightful, as ever) and Victoria remains prim and proper, even when she is dissolving her latest marks in acid in hotel bathrooms. Their antic exchanges are enhanced by equally brilliant newcomers, like the devious scientist Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), who has been imprisoned for decades for building the hidden WMD, and sultry Russian operative Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose romantic past with Frank quite irritates Sarah.
Even for that irritation, everyone looks to be having fun in Red 2, an action film that doesn’t feel the need to brood. The tone is more like the James Bond of the Roger Moore era than the tortured spy played by Daniel Craig. It's welcome as well during a summer season when even Superman has gone dark and become morally ambiguous.
Red 2's frothy mix of stunts and jokes is lightweight throughout. The many car chases aren’t going to impress anyone who has seen the Fast and Furious sequels, but they offer the pleasure of watching Helen Mirren firing guns out of spinning cars with undisguised enthusiasm. Moments like that pretty much ensure that this franchise won’t be retired any time soon.