The novelty of a certain movie can wear off the moment its sequel begins, which is what happens with “RED 2.”
The hook to the original “RED,” a surprise hit in the fall of 2010, was that this was an action movie with a cast of pensioners led by the relatively youthful Bruce Willis, 58. The sight of Helen Mirren wearing an evening dress and combat boots may be funny once. Try to build a second movie around such gags, though, and it quickly becomes apparent they weren’t exactly riotous in the first place.
But “RED” (which stands for Retired, Extremely Dangerous) showed a profit, so that means there must be a sequel, especially if Willis is involved. He showed up for “The Whole Ten Yards,” for crying out loud.
Willis’ character, retired CIA black ops expert Frank Moses, is still committed to enjoying the fruits of a normal life. At the homeowners’ paradise known as Costco, he tries to convince his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), they really need a power washer. Then his old colleague Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) appears in the next aisle to warn Frank they are in trouble again.
Frank ignores him and tells Marvin to drive away. Marvin’s SUV promptly explodes.
Malkovich is positioned too prominently on the movie poster for Marvin to be killed off in the first five minutes, so he turns up again shortly and Frank is reluctantly pulled back into action. To his chagrin, Sarah is thrilled to be part of the team.
Someone posted a WikiLeaks memo “on the Internet” (screenwriters have to stop treating the Internet as if it were a recent innovation) linking Frank and Marvin to a Cold War operation called Nightshade. Neither of them has heard of Nightshade, but suddenly every major government wants them dead.
A never-specified American agency hires the best contract killer in the world, Han Choi Bai (Byung-hun Lee, Storm Shadow in the “G.I. Joe” movies). We know Han is the best contract killer in the world because Marvin says so twice within five minutes. Meanwhile, Britain’s MI6 hires another of Frank’s old friends, Victoria (Mirren), who politely phones him with a warning.
The first movie had Frank and Sarah racing all over America. The sequel opens up the scope by sending them on a tour of the capitals of Europe – Paris, London and Moscow – so at least the scenery is pretty, especially during the Paris segment.
Things get complicated in Paris with the appearance of Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a Russian agent and one of Frank’s old flames. Katja’s arrival fills Sarah with jealousy, particularly when Marvin calls her “Frank Moses’ kryptonite.” Screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoebert use Marvin as their mouthpiece to make sure the audience doesn’t miss even the most obvious plot point.
Eventually the players learn Nightshade was an American operation to smuggle a portable nuclear weapon into Moscow “at the height of the Cold War” (more on that later). To locate the bomb, they must smuggle the weapon’s inventor, physicist Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), out of the asylum where MI6 has been holding him for 32 years. The walls of Bailey’s cell are covered with scribbled mathematical equations and formulas, because that’s what crazy scientists do in the movies.
The plot is even more convoluted than it sounds with all sorts of goofy plot twists. Bad guys become good guys and good guys become bad guys so frequently several characters probably lose track of their allegiances.
The script has a hazy, and bizarre, memory of recent history. “The height of the Cold War” turns out to be 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. That means the U.S. went ahead with Operation Nightshade when it was clear the Eastern Bloc was coming apart, making our government more sinister than the Soviet Union. “RED 2” is too steeped in gun fetishism to be a sneaky left-wing critique of U.S. foreign policy during the late 20th century. It just hopes no one does the math.
But here’s a bit more math: Zeta-Jones was born in 1969, which means she would have been in her early 20s when the Cold War ended. Either Katja was a femme fatale prodigy, or Zeta-Jones doesn’t mind audiences thinking she’s as old as her co-stars. If so, more power to her.
The script is loaded with inconsistencies. At the beginning a handcuffed Frank is trapped in a small room with three armed men, two of them mercenaries carrying submachine guns, and he escapes. But near the end, merely because the plot requires it, Frank surrenders to an elderly man with a small pistol.
Even with these faults, “RED 2” is charmingly small-scaled compared with recent action films. Cars and the occasional plane blow up, but not office buildings. And the movie has a running time of less than two hours, which is something of a miracle in the current marketplace.
The original film had those things going for it, too. “RED” also had director Robert Schwentke, who balanced the humor and the action with some skill. Schwentke left to direct “R.I.P.D.,” which also opens this weekend, leaving “RED 2” with Dean Parisot, who hasn’t directed a feature film since 2005’s awful “Fun With Dick and Jane.”
Parisot’s heavy hand with comedy makes the many attempts at black humor appalling, starting with the scene where Mirren casually pours acid into a bathtub to aid the decomposition of her latest victim. Mutilating corpses – funny stuff, there.
Frank and his friends are professional killers, that’s supposed to be part of the joke, and I don’t expect “RED 2” to show them as paragons of virtue. But I do expect the heroes of an American action movie to display a modicum of morality. Toward the end the good guys gun down about a dozen people who have done nothing wrong, unless you consider being Iranian wrong. I’m afraid to learn the percentage of viewers who would say yes.
Rating: PG-13 for pervasive action and violence including frenetic gunplay, and for some language and drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Starring: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren
Summary: Retired spies Willis and Malkovich are on the run again when they are implicated in a Cold War-era plot to detonate a nuclear bomb in Moscow. One of Willis’ old flames, a Russian agent played by Catherine Zeta-Jones appears, driving his girlfriend (Parker) crazy with jealousy.