2 stars out of 4
The first “Red” took everyone — critics and audiences alike — completely by surprise. Although based on a comic book, it was a tongue-in-cheek spy story that bordered on parody and was smart as all get-out. As is too often the case with sequels — particularly action sequels — the follow-ups cross the line into self-parody and “Red 2” does just that and more (or less, depending on your particular perspective).
For straight-ahead action fans (the sole target demographic here), “Red 2” far exceeds its predecessor in body count, sound volume and stuff that blows up. It is also set on not one, but three continents, has twice the amount of principal characters, half as much wit and zero surprises.
Save for the lucky Morgan Freeman (whose character took a permanent powder in the first), the four remaining co-leads from the first are back, albeit in diluted, dishwater dull form. The previously tentative romantic leads — Bruce Willis as Frank and Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah — are now married and in a rut; mostly because of him. Content with shopping at Costco and lying low, Frank embraces domesticity with the same relish Sarah views danger. When Marvin (John Malkovich) appears out of nowhere to draft Frank back into service, Sarah is beside herself with perpetual giddy joy; so much so she becomes an abrasive irritant after about 15 minutes.
Taking little to no time in getting to the action, director Dean Parisot (“Galaxy Quest”) and returning screenwriting brothers Jon and Erich Hoeber deliver two instantly memorable and dangerous evil foils. Horton (Neal McDonough) is a frosty-haired, pale blue-eyed spook of some sort with no fear, boundaries, scruples or ethics. His soft-spoken description to Frank of what he might do to Sarah is convincingly bone-chilling and skin-crawling.
Bad guy number two is Han (Korean Byung-hun Lee) another agent of unknown allegiance who has been hired to take out Frank and Marvin before they can reveal the details of “Nightshade,” a three-decades old mission that was masterminded by Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), currently holed up in a London asylum. The arguable highlight of the film is Lee’s Han, a hybrid of Bruce Lee’ Kato and Sean Connery’s James Bond. An early scene showing Han making brilliant use of origami is the only one in the movie that isn’t stale and/or recycled. Lee also has perfect diction and presence to burn and would an ideal choice for any studio to build an action franchise around.
Rounding out the cast is an underused David Thewlis as yet another spy and wine geek known as “the Frog,” an overused and not looking real good Catherine Zeta-Jones as a Russian femme fatale and Helen Mirren again packing major heat as Victoria. Even though Mirren doesn’t do much she — as usual — looks great doing it.
Instead of being a mostly character-driven dark comedy like the first, “2” sticks close to the rote secret agent/action-adventure blueprint. There are some jokes but they feel as if they were inserted solely for increasing the yuck factor rather than wisely be mined for comic gold. Like Parker, Malkovich concentrates on bug-eyes and different ways of shaping his mouth and his Marvin is nowhere near as gruff, pithy and paranoid as he was in the first.
As for Willis, he seems about as interested in reprising this role here as he was with the last two “Die Hard” installments. He makes an effort but you can tell his heart is not in it and he’s only around (like mostly everyone else) merely to pick up a paycheck.
The worst part about “Red 2” is that its mediocrity doesn’t come as a big surprise and the same can be said with the last scene that all but guarantees a third installment. For some fans this is great news but for others the last thing we want to see is John Malkovich wearing make-up and lipsticks while dressed in Carmen Miranda drag. (Summit)