Film Review: RED 2

The old band gets back together—again—for another, flashier action romp. And just like last time, at least half the fun is in watching how much fun a ridiculously overqualified cast is having.

As the inevitable sequel to a hit action comedy, RED 2 takes a typical more-is-more approach—which means bigger explosions, meaner villains, higher stakes and louder laughs. Who can count how many times that high concept has resulted in sheer overkill? But with this sequel, more-is-more works—every over-the-top moment of it.

Even at its most formulaic, RED 2 feels fresh and energized and inventively playful. And that starts with the basic set-up and resulting events, which remind us of spy movies we’ve seen before—including RED 1. As in that movie, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) are retired CIA spies with bull’s-eyes on their backs—this time because their names have been linked to the legend of a lost Cold War nuclear WMD. Before you can say MacGuffin, the world’s best hit men (and women) are hunting Frank and Marvin—as well as Frank’s guilty-by-association girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker)—even as the trio searches for the one Cold War survivor who can lead them to the missing device. Naturally, this leads to a mad flurry of shootouts, chases and smackdowns, most of which are more elaborate than anything in the first RED.

Of course, in a movie that introduces the threat of a thermonuclear secret weapon in the first act, elaborate could easily have grown numbing in a hurry. That RED 2’s set-pieces avoid that effect is a testament to the imagination of its action orchestrators. Sure, it’s no longer new and different to watch high-caliber, rapid-fire guns shred a bus or building until it literally collapses. On the other hand, it hasn’t gotten old yet. Meanwhile, in closer combat, the filmmakers have found some very clever ways to use everything from chairs to shelving to Pringle’s potato chips as handy props. Who knew that oversized origami could deliver a lethal paper cut?

Even at its most derivative—or should we call it paying homage?—RED 2 shows a flashy flair for some classic action-genre stylization: Willis takes on ten gunmen, one by one, most of them in a small storage room, in what feels like a condensed edition of Die Hard. Number-one hit man Han (Byung-hun Lee) puts down a half-dozen assailants, who surround him but never land a solid blow, in some vintage Bruce Lee-style choreography. And Mirren’s ex-MI6 assassin Victoria kicks off the climactic multi-vehicle chase with a gun in each hand, blazing out both side windows of her car. No John Woo hero ever looked better doing it. Of course, it helps that this is Mirren doing it. The sight of the screen’s most elegant actress wielding heavy ordinance, with panache to spare, still has quite a kick to it.

But there’s more to Mirren’s role than inspired stunt casting. Now that the novelty has worn off a bit, she and the rest of this improbable ensemble can settle into some nice grooves with their respective characters. For Willis, that means an effortless return to his peak action-hero form, with an undercurrent of domestic tension as his Frank tries to balance saving the world with cultivating a still-new romantic relationship. For Malkovich, it means a refining of his half-crazy comic-relief sidekick (with better dialogue). For the inimitable Parker, it means carte blanche to enliven every scene she’s in with the magic she brings to each line reading, reaction take and quirky bit of body language. And for Mirren, it’s the chance to fully milk the incongruity of her deadly-dame persona. A throwaway scene featuring Victoria in an evening gown, doing some impromptu couples counseling while pouring acid into a bathtub stuffed with dead bodies, is a particularly striking example of this.

It’s also a good example of the broader, more prominent sense of humor at play in RED 2. It’s not that the filmmakers have adopted an anything-for-a-laugh approach—but there are several scenes that seem to exist just to end with a punch line. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And anyway, at the same time, many of the humor-laden lulls between ultraviolent eruptions do rely on character-driven situations—especially the Frank/Sarah rocky romance, which playfully addresses such typical boy-girl issues as “Have we gone stale?” and “Do we have a future?” and, oh yeah, “Stop treating me like a china doll!” All of which gets an added shower of catty sparks when Catherine Zeta-Jones shows up as Katja, an electrically sultry Russian spy from Frank’s past.

Add Anthony Hopkins as the apparently mad scientist who invented the mysterious doomsday device, and you’ve got what could have been an embarrassment of riches. Granted, there are a few moments that Sir Anthony hams to the hilt. And really, with the cast already in place, did the film really need his presence? Turns out it sort of did: His character proves integral, even crucial to the film’s final act. Given the stature of his co-stars, could the film have gotten away with casting anyone less? Sometimes more really is more.

From the looks of RED 2, we can probably plan on seeing a RED 3 within the next few years. And as long as it brings back its core four, it will probably be worth the price of admission. With the right writing and direction, this could go on to become an enduring spy-movie series. And we all know how long those can carry on. Isn’t that right, Mr. Bond?