Red 2 is cinematic Alka Seltzer: dissipating before your very eyes, giving a temporary measure of relief before its effect wears off completely. Which makes this review sound as though it’s going to be negative when that’s truly not the case; I found Red 2 to be a perfectly entertaining way to spend an hour and change at the movies, but only a matter of days after the screening I find myself hard pressed to recall any salient details that the movie had to offer. The plot is inconsequential: Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), our lovable retired spies, are targeted for assassination due to a botched past mission with their good friend Victoria (Helen Mirren) hired to finish the job. They travel the globe to clear their names in an effort to find a whatsit created by a whosit before time runs out. But, in the manner of any decent film, it’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it. And in the case of Red 2, the little moments that inform who these characters are help the film coalesce into something stronger than its stale “missing nuclear device” plotline would suggest.
It’s surprising that this movie even exists; the original Red was a similarly enjoyable puff pastry of a movie that made its hay through the chemistry between cast members despite being indistinct in terms of any specific story elements or action sequences. One of the minor miracles accomplished in that first film was coaxing a non-somnambulant performance out of Bruce Willis, whose turns in recent action movies suggest an intensely interesting craft services table off camera. Malkovich, Mirren and Mary Louise-Parker all proved to be worthy comedic foils for bringing out Willis’ more charming on-screen attributes and the final result was a breezy albeit forgettable piece of pop entertainment, something that didn’t leave audiences clamoring for further adventures in the lives of these characters. Yet here we are.
Cosmetically, the film has been upgraded in a few aspects. Dean Parisot is a big step up from previous director Robert Schwentke, as his Galaxy Quest is one of the most underrated movies of the past 15 years. And switching out Karl Urban’s government-sponsored antagonist for the ridiculously good-looking and charismatic Byung-hun Lee is another massive improvement. Lee walks away with the movie during his limited screen time, bringing menacing physicality and unforeseen comedic chops to a character that could’ve fallen limp in lesser hands. Anthony Hopkins makes the most out of his addled scientist character Bailey, playing this human MacGuffin to the hilt, and it took an IMDB consultation to remind myself that Catherine Zeta-Jones was even in this movie despite her sizable role. But it’s our holdovers from the original film that make this kitten purr, with Willis and Louise-Parker continuing their genuine chemistry from the first film along with a livewire performance from Malkovich. And this sequel doesn’t forget just how awesome it is to see Helen Mirren brandishing firearms and mowing down anyone in her path. Small details like the way a character describes the sexual jolt he gets from seeing his paramour curl her toes as she fires a sniper rifle (and the fact that he’s deeply inhaling of her high heel as he waxes poetic) accumulate and create color where a more perfunctory action movie would settle for generic platitudes instead of these unique nuggets of character development.
I couldn’t blame you for waiting a year or so until Red 2 becomes a permanent fixture on basic cable and saving your hard-earned money. The movie doesn’t demand a big-screen viewing; in fact, a small screen may help to mask its special effects deficiencies (two enormously clunky sequences comes to mind) while periodical bathroom and snack breaks throughout its airing may make the narrative flaws easier to digest (such as Neal McDonough’s government tough). And while “basic cable classic” would appear to be faint praise of the damning variety, as more and more summer films fail the basic objective of being passable entertainment, a film like Red 2 achieving the modest goals it sets for itself is worthy of commendation.