Review: Red 2

Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), Frank (Bruce Willis) and Marvin (John Malkovich) go for a morning stroll
Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), Frank (Bruce Willis) and Marvin (John Malkovich) go for a morning stroll

Red was fun. Something of a sleeper hit, it managed to travel by word-of-mouth, offering light-hearted action backed with a spitfire script and some very appealing characters. Evidently it did enough business to make a sequel commercially viable, which ought to be good news for everyone. With so many comic book adaptations gunning to be taken seriously, it’s good to have a vehicle out there ready to poke fun at itself and promise little more than a diverting 90 minutes or so. There’s something solidly reliable about a mid-budget movie with an all-star cast that doesn’t have ambitions beyond being simply entertaining. “Why so serious?” asked Nolan’s Joker. Red asked, “Why be serious at all?”

Unfortunately Red 2 sees the alchemy that worked so well the first time in dire need of some extra pep.

It begins with a crushingly mundane visit to a hardware store. Former C.I.A. agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) seems keen to settle into the expected role of a man in his retirement, much to the evident disappointment of his girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). However when their old chum Marvin (John Malkovich) makes a poorly-handled cameo during their shopping trip – followed by a poorly-handled swift exit – the two of them find themselves back on the road and back into danger before Red 2 has had time to fully outline what the bloody problem is.

Marvin isn’t quite as dead as he inexplicably made himself appear to be, and soon enough the old team is assembling and jetting off around the world, laying down bits and pieces of exposition as and when it feels like it. Red 2 does find some momentum, but it takes its sweet time getting to it, and so much of the first hour, though fine enough, plays out like a movie on autopilot. You’d think this would leave ample room for the kind of smart wordplay that made Red such a hoot, but witty dialogue seems to have been traded in for super-spy globe-trotting, whilst Willis and Malkovich Fed-Ex their performances in from their trailers by craft services.

Fear not, you might think, because Mary-Louise Parker provided much of the first film’s finest moments. Surely she’ll provide the same amiable quirks this time around? Sadly not, as a condescending story-arc has Frank squash her every impulse, for fear she might shatter like a China doll. A great comic actress, you can sense Parker trying to break out from a script which is smothering her.

It’s not that the jokes aren’t there. I’m sure a lot of Red 2 seemed funny on paper. But either everyone’s forgotten their timing, or it just doesn’t naturally translate to the screen this time. Like an unexpected creampie in a porn movie, you know what’s happening, you just can’t see it.

And so Red 2 feels as though it’s a little more straight-faced than it perhaps means to, whipping up a story that feels like something out of a Pierce Brosnan-era Bond movie, stumbling to find motivation without the Cold War safety option. We hop between England, France and Russia, searching for weapons of mass destruction, whilst varying factions summarily open fire on our heroes whenever it seems like they haven’t done so for a while. Things reach a nadir when Catherine Zeta-Jones appears, showing all the acting range of lawn furniture and looking like a varnished hooker. You’re left wondering who thought this was a good idea?

Fortunately Red 2 does come around, aided by a couple of new players in the mix. Byung-hun Lee’s Korean hitter Han adds some killer-instinct suaveness to proceedings (he’s a mean motherfucker with a fridge door), whilst Anthony Hopkins seems to be the only one really in the spirit of things as barmy Bailey (imagine Hannibal Lecter with Altzheimer’s and you’re part way there). The story twists and turns happily, characters switch allegiances, and poor Uncle Sam bad boy Jack Horton (Neal McDonough) just can’t keep up with it all. You’d feel sorry for him, if he wasn’t so mean-spirited…

…which is another thing. Red 2 seems more cruel than it’s predecessor. Perhaps with the jokes failing to hit as successfully, the brutality is in some way accentuated? It’s not detrimental per se, but some of this ‘light-hearted’ action veers awfully close to callousness.

However, once you accept that this is a tonally different film to its predecessor, it dutifully fulfills the role of a harmless Saturday night action thriller. There are lots of guns, a car chase or two, even a couple of explosions here and there. Nothing is particularly clever, nothing particularly poor enough to derail the whole enterprise entirely. Even Parker is let out of the box for the last half hour, though her doe-eyed zeal at finally getting given a gun (and by extension a pass to play with the rest of the children) is in itself a little bit unsettling. One hopes that if the series does continue she’s given more interesting material.

And I do hope the series continues. Red 2 may not be the charming success story many of us were hoping for, but there’s (just about) enough here for now. A spirited rethink may be in order, but there’s life in the old dog(s) yet. For now though, I’m sad to say this is less Red 2 and more Red 2 and a half.

Score:  2.5

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