Do not underestimate the retired and extremely dangerous. In a summer season dominated by superheroes and giant robot-monster battles, the old dogs of “RED 2” more than hold their own.
“Galaxy Quest” director Dean Parisot is the man behind the lens on the sequel to Summit Entertainment’s surprise hit adaptation of Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s Wildstorm miniseries “RED,” the 2010 action-comedy starring Bruce Willis as Frank Moses, a former operative dragged back into the lethal world of killers and spies against his will, all while trying to hold it together on the worst first date ever with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a doe-eyed customer service rep entirely unfamiliar with Frank’s line of work. In the end, Frank saved the day, cleared his name and got the girl — but it wasn’t all happily ever after.
When the sequel begins, Frank has gone weeks without killing a single person. For most rational human beings, this is a positive thing. But Frank’s old spy pal Marvin (John Malkovich) is anything but rational. He comes to Frank with a warning: there are forces in play moving against their kind, and Frank needs to get back in the game. That’s the last thing Frank wants to hear. All he wants in his new life is to sit at home on Saturday night with Sarah, cooking up the groceries they bought together at Costco. (No delivery or dining out under any circumstances.) As it happens, Frank’s desire for a mundane existence is the last thing that Sarah wants. Following the events of “RED,” all she desires is the thrill of holding a gun and chasing down bad guys.
Sarah gets her wish, and Frank faces his greatest fears when he’s once again forced on the run — this time across the pond to Europe — for crimes he did not commit. As he works to clear his name, Frank learns of a deadly terrorist plot to acquire a legendary nuclear device from the Cold War. As it happens, Frank is the only one who can stop the thing from falling into the wrong hands.
There you have it: the setup of “RED 2” in a nutshell. Pretty basic stuff, right? There isn’t anything revolutionary about the story. There are few overly-ambitious twists. The turns that do exist in the plot aren’t hard to see coming. The traitors and the eventual reluctant heroes are readily identifiable. It’s straightforward and by-the-numbers.
And man, is it fun.
It’s as fun as it ever was to watch Malkovich’s Marvin rely on hallucinogenics and drug-addled logic to get the job done. It’s as fun as it ever was to see Willis’ Frank and Parker’s Sarah bitch and moan through their growing relationship while bullets fly all around them. And Helen Mirren with a sniper rifle? It still doesn’t get much better than that.
Parisot didn’t direct the first “RED,” but he’s working with returning writers Jon and Erich Hoeber. Together, they all know what made the original work, and they know not to mess with the formula. What we’re left with is yet another case of pure, unbridled, action-oriented joy, with senior citizens toting the guns that most movies would hand over to younger bucks like Matt Damon or, in the case of the “Expendables” franchise, aging action stars unironically pushing past their prime. The joy of the “RED” series is watching actors who have no business shooting at each other do exactly what they’re not supposed to do. Parisot and the Hoeber brothers play that up to wonderful effect, giving Malkovich and Mirren and the others plenty of ammo to do what they shouldn’t. The fact that the action is set in beautiful historic locations like Paris and London and Moscow makes the experience all the more enjoyable.
In addition to the new setting, the sequel adds new players to the “RED” rodeo, such as Sir Anthony Hopkins. The Oscar-winner plays Edward Bradley, a brilliant Cold War era scientist who holds the key to saving the day or making it worse. The problem is, Bradley’s spent the past several years on lockdown in a top-secret facility, drugged up and losing some serious touch in his old age. Hopkins embraces the role and injects it with humor, heart and even some of that signature darkness he does so well. He’s a very welcome addition to the “RED” team, a major highlight of the film.
Also welcome is Byung-hun Lee, best known to American audiences for playing Storm Shadow in the “G.I. Joe” movies. Here, Lee plays Han, also known as the Da Vinci of Death. He’s the world’s greatest assassin, able to turn something as simple as origami into a lethal weapon. Han wants nothing more in the world than to settle a score with an old foe: Frank Moses, the man who betrayed him years ago. Han spends most of “RED 2” trying to kill Frank before the veteran spy can accomplish his goals. In other words, he’s at the heart of some of the film’s most breathtaking action scenes. At one point, he beats down dozens of opponents with nothing more than a refrigerator door-handle. Lee is cool and effortless all throughout, the indisputable sex-machine bad-ass of “RED 2.” Put simply, Hollywood needs more Byung-hun Lee.
Big explosions and big laughs are all over “RED 2.” If that’s what drew you into the first “RED,” you won’t be disappointed with the sequel. The fan-favorite characters from the original are all given plenty to do in round two, while new blood like Hopkins, Lee, and Catherine Zeta-Jones (playing a Russian agent and one of Frank’s former flames) keep the affair feeling fresh and new. It’s not the smartest or flashiest movie of the blockbuster season, no, but it’s reliable and satisfying.
“RED 2” is comfort-food: it’s hard to screw up mac and cheese, and it’s hard to screw up “RED.” If you enjoyed the first movie, you’ll enjoy the sequel. If you didn’t, you won’t. It’s that simple.
“RED 2” hits theaters this Friday, July 19.