Though it featured a veritable who’s who of some of Hollywood’s greatest veteran actors, 2010’s “RED” was a bit of a surprise hit, earning $200 million worldwide during the doldrums of October. You’d forgive Summit Entertainment for wanting to fast-track a sequel then, even if the source material on which it’s based (Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer’s three-issue comic book series of the same name) was completely exhausted in the first film. Of course, that hasn’t stopped series writers Jon and Erich Hoeber from continuing their story of retired, extremely dangerous CIA agent Frank Martin, and although it doesn’t quite pack the same punch as its predecessor, “RED 2” is still a good deal of fun thanks almost entirely to its star-studded cast.
Following the events of the last movie, Frank (Bruce Willis) has been trying to lead a quiet, domestic life with girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), but she yearns for another adventure. And her wish is granted when Marvin (John Malkovich) tracks Frank down to warn him that they’ve been framed as domestic terrorists involved in a top secret operation known as Nightshade, a ludicrous Cold War plot to sneak a portable WMD into Moscow, only for it to go missing. But the Russian nuke is very much real, and the only person who knows of its whereabouts is Dr. Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), the physicist responsible for building it, who’s been locked away in a British insane asylum for over 30 years, despite being believed dead. So when the U.S. government hires a deadly assassin (Byung-hun Lee) to take Frank out, he must team up with his fellow operatives to recover the bomb and prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.
The Hoebers’ script throws a lot at the audience early on, but once all of the characters are properly introduced, it settles back into a familiar groove as a frisky spy vs. spy action comedy. Though it’s difficult to beat the cast of the original, director Dean Parisot (“Galaxy Quest”) has done just that, filling the voids left by Morgan Freeman and Karl Urban with Catherine Zeta-Jones (as a Russian counterintelligence agent who has a romantic past with Frank), Hopkins and Lee, as well as bringing back Helen Mirren and Brian Cox in supporting roles. Zeta-Jones’ character doesn’t serve much of a purpose other than to create tension between Frank and Sarah, but Hopkins is excellent as the certifiably crazy scientist. And while Lee is the only youngster in the cast, he’s a solid addition who thrives in the film’s action scenes, even if Mirren still comes out looking like the biggest badass of the bunch when it’s all said and done.
David Thewlis also pops up in a brief cameo as an information dealer known as The Frog (and it would have been nice to see more of his character), but the main trio is the engine of the movie, with Malkovich once again the standout as Frank’s nutty sidekick. Willis and Parker don’t really have the necessary chemistry to make their relationship feel legit, but the latter at least has more to do in this one than simply following Willis around like a dog on a leash. Parker appears to be relishing the freedom that her character’s been granted in the sequel, and she gets to really let loose as someone who enjoys the thrill of the spy game perhaps a little too much.
Like most sequels, “RED 2” tries and fails at one-upping the original (although there’s a cool variation of the moving car gag that’s even more outlandish), and while the action isn’t quite as memorable this time around, it’s every bit as playful. The film also lacks the breezy pace of its predecessor, instead bogged down by an overcomplicated plot for seemingly no other reason than to pack as much talent into the movie as possible, though that’s part of its charm. By all accounts, “RED 2” shouldn’t be so entertaining – it’s incredibly formulaic, unfocused and almost too silly for its own good – but when you have a cast this great, having this much fun, it’s really hard not to enjoy.