"Red 2" Deftly Outpaces Its Predecessor

I can’t remember a thing about 2010’s “Red,” but my notes tell me that I found it “annoying and trite.” So I walked into “Red 2” as a kind of Leonard Shelby, aware of a particular past experience – in this case, seeing “Red” – but almost entirely devoid of any feelings about it. Was I in a bad mood that day? Had I just seen a great film by which “Red” paled in comparison? Judging by the simple pleasures of “Red 2,” the answer to both of those questions is a definite “maybe.” The film is a total lark – nonsensical and sort of bland, but just charming enough to elicit the occasional smirk. And in the midst of a particularly underwhelming summer movie season, “OK” is good enough.

Bruce Willis returns as retired CIA operative, Frank Moses, while Mary-Louise Parker reprises her role as Frank’s love interest, Sarah, and Helen Mirren once again plays the deadly MI6 assassin, Victoria. But it’s John Malkovich who steals the show as Melvin, the paranoid former black ops agent and best friend to Frank. Melvin’s something of a mad scientist, and even when given little substance to work with, Malkovich is able to spin gold.

The story is boilerplate spy stuff, featuring plenty of globetrotting, more than one cold-blooded assassin, and a misplaced weapon of mass destruction. Anthony Hopkins co-stars as kindly old professor who may or may not be an evil mastermind and Catherine Zeta-Jones gets a small supporting role as a Russian operative who has a history with Frank. The extensive cast doesn’t end there – Brian Cox, Neal McDonough, and Byung-hun Lee play significant parts – but director Dean Parisot (“Galaxy Quest”) and his screenwriters use their players wisely, giving us the right amount of each character. No one overstays his or her welcome.

Whenever a scene falls flat – and because of the slack narrative, it happens frequently – Parisot is at least smart enough to recognize the ace up his sleeve. In lieu of actual intrigue, the director never fails to cut to a Malkovich reaction shot. It does become predictable after a while, but it’s always entertaining and I couldn’t help but imagine a spinoff based on his character. His potential in this role is limitless, and the film’s utilization of him is both its best and its worst feature. Is Malkovich great here? Absolutely. Could the filmmakers have done more with the character? You bet.

Most of the film’s action scenes are either ludicrously over-the-top, uninspiring, or both, but a sequence involving a handcuffed Byung-hun Lee is startling in its ferocity and staging. It’s something out of a far superior action film, but for a moment it elevates “Red 2” above standard action fare and hints at a much brawnier take on the source material. If the rest of the picture were as visually elegant, Summit and Lionsgate would really have something. As it stands, the action doesn’t live up to the characters and the lively cast that inhabits them.

My thoughts on the original film are a bit clouded, but “Red 2” is at least as good as its predecessor, if not noticeably better. It’s not as cutesy, and in not trying quite as hard, it exudes a kind of effortlessness that works in its favor. It won’t change any lives, but it just might change a few minds, particularly of those who didn’t enjoy the original. I had a fine time with it, and thanks to John Malkovich, I’m confident that most audiences will, too.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: July 19, 2013
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Dean Parisot
Screenwriter: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber
Starring: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Byung Hun Lee, Brian Cox, Neal McDonough
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for pervasive action and violence including frenetic gunplay, and for some language and drug material)