You get the sense watching the first Red, released three years ago, that with all the bullets flying around, the cast and filmmakers somehow managed to dodge one. It was silly, it featured principal players not exactly on an uptick, and director Robert Schwentke was no big shakes.
But Red was fun. We learned that Bruce Willis, when engaged, can still carry an action comedy, and that he plays really well off of John Malkovich—and who would've ever believed that? It did reasonably well. It was even a Golden Globe nominee for Best Comedy, and if they broke up supporting actor into drama/comedy fields like they do Best Picture and the lead acting categories, Malkovich would have been in that equation as well.
But why a sequel? Largely, that has to do with the film's distributor, Summit Entertainment, which in its half-decade of releasing movies has only made four that grossed more than Red. And they all have Twilight in the title.
So here we are.
Red 2 reunites Willis and Malkovich, plus Helen Mirren and Mary-Louise Parker. Writers Jon and Erich Hoeber have given Mirren and Parker more to do, which is great, but Willis is almost a bystander. That happens a lot in movies where the filmmakers want to roll in new characters; the hero is just a springboard for some new backstory.
Frank (Willis) has returned to civilian life with Sarah (Parker), but his old friend Marvin (Malkovich) hunts him down to say that, WikiLeaks style, a document from the Cold War has surfaced naming them as being couriers for a nuclear device smuggled into Moscow. The thrust of the plot: Go find that undetonated device and do it without being cooked.
There are lots of exit ramps on what would otherwise be a pretty quick and energetic freeway. Here's where a movie about Frank becomes Frank introducing us to new characters. There's Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a KGB agent and Frank's former lover. There's Han (Byung-hun Lee), an assassin who Frank captured years ago. And there's Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), the scientist who developed the nuke and has been locked away for more than 30 years. Who - if not all of them - will cross or double-cross our man Frank?
Red 2 develops none of this stuff organically. The new characters are just hung on the story like an obligatory Christmas tree decoration you leave for your cousins. That's one distinct advantage of the first film, which was based on a limited-run comic book series. They had to develop a story that turned the page. By the time the writers got to the sequel, they understood what audiences told them: We like Malkovich because he's crazy, and please blow more shit up. But the story is really murky, so the development of the characters who should propel it barely exists.
Having said that, this can still be a pretty good time. There aren't as many big laughs and it's lost the novelty, but Red 2 is not entirely dead in the water. Helen Mirren is Helen Mirren, after all, and Mary-Louise Parker is really charming as a girlfriend so in love with the idea of danger and adventure that she doesn't realize how dangerous it all is.
It is becoming evident, however, that Catherine Zeta-Jones has never been able to act. And that Anthony Hopkins can't be bothered to give a damn, which is a shame. Cut them out of this (or at least lose Zeta-Jones and give Hopkins a B12 shot) and Red 2 might be a worthy sequel. But it's just the good bits from the trailer spread way too thin.