'RED 2': An action sequel with fists and fun
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Following up 2010's "RED," "RED 2" continues the adventures of ex-super spy Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), whose status as "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" gives these films both their title and their plotline. Just as in the first film, Frank's past brings various chickens home to roost. Frank may be out of the game, but considering his Cold War-era work, what becomes increasingly clear is that the game is far from over. Frank and his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), have been off the map after the first film's adventures, but when old associate Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) shows up to warn Frank of danger, and then when danger itself shows up close behind, Frank is pulled from his life of Costco shopping and back into karate chopping.
The first "RED" was an adequate summer time-waster. I recall seeing it on a rainy summer Sunday afternoon and thinking it was fine but that if it had been sunshiny out, I'd be burning the theater down. What's interesting about "RED 2" is that, not only is it better than its predecessor, it is miles better: better acting, better action, better cinematography, lively additions to the cast, and fists and twists and fun stuff, all done with a PG-13 kind of bloodlessness and no small amount of flair. The first "Red," directed by Robert Scwentke, was stuck with murky cinematography and listless pacing; in "RED 2,"director Dean Parisot, the man behind the brilliant "Galaxy Quest,"mixes character-driven comedy with widescreen action in a way where both the laughs and the lacerations make sense together.
This is not to say that "RED 2" is a perfect delight. Some of the scene transitions from place to place, a familiar cliché of globe-trotting action, feel clumsy enough that they are instead globe-stumbling. But once you get where the film is going, you get action set-piece standouts like one where Byung-hun Lee ("G.I. Joe") dispatches several Soviet cops while handcuffed to a mini-fridge door, which then becomes less an impediment than a weapon in true old-school Jackie Chan style. Sir Anthony Hopkins is a nice addition to the cast as Prof. Bailey, a tweed-wearing scientist who used to create weapons of mass destruction, like the "Nightshade" MacGuffin the plot revolves about, before being locked up for decades. Is Bailey the nutty professor, or is he Dr. Strangelove?
Screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber, also returning, know that the appeal of the series comes with its grumpy old spies like Willis, Malkovich and Helen Mirren (who gets one great joke in at her own expense and looks great all in camouflage carrying a rifle possibly longer than she is tall) taking on today's younger, sleeker and less dangerous espionage counterparts. (If this film series' pitch were a Venn diagram, it'd be the intersection of three circles representing three different organizations: CIA, MI6 ... and the AARP.) And yet, "RED 2" is fun, and far smoother and smarter than its first installment. Willis delivers plenty of reluctant heroics; Malkovich provides off-kilter comedy as an ex-intelligence operative with a damaged brain; a few other familiar faces too good to spoil make appearances.
Director Parisot is really the MVP here, though. He has a good eye for both the geography of action and the timing of comedy -- and how one can, in fact, happen within the other, and vice versa. And some flaws are harder to ignore than others. A subplot showcasing Parker's taste for danger getting a serving of the real thing feels a little clumsy and clouded. Even when "RED 2" gets a little murky, though, its high spots show its true colors well enough to make for a well-tuned piece of summertime action fun.
James Rocchi has written reviews and articles for print and online publications, including Total Film Magazine, the Toronto Star, IndieWire's The Playlist, Mother Jones, AMCtv.com and Cinematical.com. He's covered film festivals, including Sundance, Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW and Fantastic Fest. He's been an on-air reviewer for CBS-5 San Francisco and a reviewer and commentator for CNN, G4, TechTV and more. He lives in Los Angeles, which is both exactly and not at all like the movies suggest it is.