You can certainly see the lure of doing a sequel to RED, the 2010 sleeper hit that first gathered a cast of mostly middle-aged (or older) actors into the world’s unlikeliest globe-trotting kamikaze SWAT team. The original film, based on the DC comic-book series, had a casually chatty B-movie extravagance that was disarmingly friendly. The plot was just pulp to chew on, but the characters made for lively company, and I was happy at the prospect of spending more time with them. To say that RED 2 is a worthy follow-up is to say that it’s another piece of smartly preposterous action-espionage trash, with a countdown-to-Armagedden caper plot that’s a little too arbitrary and complicated for its own good. This time, our heroes have to track a rogue nuke that’s set to go off in the middle of Moscow; they’re also out to clear their names in a Cold War scandal that dates back to the early ’80s. Even more than in the first film, Bruce Willis’ chemistry with Mary-Louise Parker has a spiky charm, and I enjoyed the killer charisma of Byung-hun Lee as a newly added assassin who can murder you with a piece of origami — though he’s a perfect example of a character who’s in the mix because he’s more colorful than essential.
You could sum up the concept of RED 2, like RED before it, as ”cleverly convoluted action comedy with excessively nonchalant one-liners” or ”a coed version of The Expendables crossed with Ocean’s Fourteen.” But I prefer to think of the concept as ”violent, throwaway thriller featuring a cast you’d expect to see in a hip Broadway revival of Shakespeare.” The (mild) kick of RED 2, apart from its snazzy if overdone pile-up of action scenes, big twists, and MacGuffins, is that it once again plugs actors like John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Anthony Hopkins into the kind of over-the-top ballistic carnage — and invites them to express the sort of kick-ass attitude — that you’d normally expect to see in a Bruce Willis blowout. As the former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses, Willis once again gives the audience a full, satisfying dose of his die-hard-for-a-paycheck moxie, which means that Mirren (as a cold-blooded MI6 assassin) and Malkovich (as a black-ops agent who keeps getting very irritated) have to measure up to that Willis standard. And they do.
The best thing about RED 2, like its predecessor, is its lightness of tone. Too many movies with comic-book roots come on too seriously, even when the comics themselves have a loose, fast, jocular wit about them. The action is light too: Late in the movie, when that nuke is ticking down, and the helicopter on which Malkovich is attempting to dismantle it is going down, I flashed back to the early Bond films, where every calamity was averted with style. The limitation of a movie like this one — the downside of its lightness — is that it’s hard to pretend that there’s really anything at stake. That is, beyond the next drop-dead rejoinder in the face of disaster. B