The sequel picks up shortly after the first left off. Super-spy Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his flame Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) are settling into domesticity — she more uneasily than he. She wants adventure and excitement, to live the spy’s life. He wants to trawl Costco for the latest in domestic doodads.
Their bliss is short-lived. A secret weapons program named Nightshade has been wikileaked, and the world’s governments will stop at nothing to track it down.
Frank and Sarah reteam with the conspiracy-minded Marvin (John Malkovich) and the saucy British lady-spy Victoria (Helen Mirren) and her Russian beau Ivan (Brian Cox) to track down the mysterious weapon of mass destruction. Joining them are a pair of newcomers: Russian temptress Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Dr. Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), a squirrelly physicist long thought to be dead who may hold the secret to discovering Nightshade’s location.
Tracking our heroes are a pair of government-hired hitmen: Jack Horton (Neal McDonough) and Han Cho Boi (Byung-Hun Lee). It is worth taking a moment to marvel over the assembled collection of talent. Mr. Willis is arguably the greatest action star of the last 25 years; Mr. Malkovich and Mr. Cox are classically trained stage actors who have spent the last couple of decades classing up mainstream fare; Mr. Hopkins and Miss Mirren have been nominated for four Oscars apiece, and both have won once; and Mary Louise-Parker has racked up numerous Golden Globes and Emmys.
If nothing else, “Red 2” is the best-acted movie of the summer. And the above-mentioned stars aren’t playing their roles with a wink, like the A-listers that litter the “Ocean’s” movies. These are pro’s pros, hitting their comedic beats just right and pouring on the drama when needed.
Unfortunately, the plot is something of a mess. “Red” tried to solve the problem of super spies in a post-Cold War world by turning an omniscient United States into the villain. “Red 2” expands that idea to the rest of the world. Nation-states are not to be trusted, but vigilante spies who can kill at will can apparently be counted on to do what’s right.
The globe-hopping travails of this pack of lone wolves feel strangely hollow. The audience may want them to succeed, but it feels as if there is nothing at risk, no deeper resonance. There is no personal stake, no kidnapped wife or daughter, no loved ones at risk. And there is no geopolitical stake — every nation is just as corrupt and evil as all the others.
The global nature of the filmmaking business makes such muddled products inevitable. Why risk alienating the Chinese or the Russian markets — the largest and eighth-largest, respectively — by suggesting that the Western imperialist order is anything but inherently amoral or evil?
“Red 2” is a modestly entertaining action romp. But it’s a hollow endeavor with few lasting images or moments, the cotton candy of the multiplex.
TITLE: “Red 2”
CREDITS: Directed by Dean Parisot; written by Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber, based on characters by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner
RATING: Rated PG-13 for pervasive action and violence including frenetic gunplay, and for some language and drug material
RUNNING TIME: 116 Minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS