So far this year, Bruce Willis has starred in two action sequels which take place in Russia. The first, A Good Day to Die Hard, was a joyless mess of a film to which I gave an overly generous review. It wasn’t bad, per se, but it was bland and uninteresting, and seemed to have no concept of the films that had come before it. The second, RED 2, fares considerably better, staying true to the spirit of the original while adding new characters and despite having a new director.
After the events of the first film, Frank (Bruce Willis) is trying to settle back into the quiet routine of retired life, along with his girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). He hasn’t killed anyone in months, and the two spend their days shopping for deals at Costco. Marvin (John Malkovich) finds this situation immensely frustrating, as he is sure that they are being followed. It turns out, of course, that he’s right, and the three are launched into another adventure concerning a secret operation called Nightshade from the cold war era to which Marvin and Frank’s names are attached. This adventure leads them to Paris, London and Moscow and reunites them with the rest of the team from the first film, including Helen Mirren’s Victoria. There are some new characters too, including a Russian agent (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who has a history with Frank, a contract killer who Frank trained and betrayed, a brilliant/crazy physicist (Anthony Hopkins), a French informer known as “The Frog” (David Thewlis), and the CIA agent hunting down our heroes (Neal McDonough).
The story isn’t anything particularly new, with the team alternately either running from someone or breaking into something. The action is a mixture of exciting stuntwork and silly, over-the-top explosions, but it works well on the whole. As in the first film, however, the joy of RED 2 comes from the interplay of the cast. It’s clear that everyone is having a ball making this film, and that carries over into their performances. Much of the fun of the first movie was in seeing unlikely characters kicking ass, and while that feeling still hasn’t worn off, it’s not enough to sustain RED 2 on its own. The writers (returning from the first film) up the character drama a bit, though the new additions to the cast, and the death of Morgan Freeman’s character in the first film, have lowered the average age of the “retired: extremely dangerous”. At this point, it’s no longer difficult to imagine Helen Mirren as an assassin, so the drive has to come from the characters themselves rather than simple age-related humor, and this works better for the returnees than for the new additions.
Frank and Sarah’s relationship is at the heart of the story, and it comes off as sweet, funny and believable (considering the circumstances) without ever feeling forced. It’s clear that Frank misses the action of his old life, and Sarah misses the excitement of their first adventure, but Frank has become overly protective of Sarah. Of course, each and every professional killer in their lives has advice for him, typically put into the language of combat to make it easier for him to understand, all while giving Sarah guns and teaching her to shoot behind his back. Most of the great moments in the film stem from this relationship, as the plot is less interesting in comparison.
Director Dean Parisot (replacing the previous director, who went on to direct the recent bomb R.I.P.D.) has a good handle on both humor and action, despite not having much big screen experience beyond the genius that is Galaxy Quest. He shoots car chases from interesting low angles that give them the feeling of a stunt show, while an early action escape sequence featuring Frank is absolutely hilarious. He knows enough to get out of the way and let the actors do their work with the humor, and nothing ever feels forced. The film moves along at a brisk pace, and its globetrotting story gives it a bigger feel than the first film. (Interesting, Alan Silvestri stepped in to do the score for this sequel, though he doesn’t get many opportunities to shine.)
Overall, RED 2 is a lot of fun, though it could never have lived up to the feeling of originality of its predecessor. And while the characters and cast are still worth watching, the story just makes the film feel less interesting than it could have been. I don’t know if there will be any more sequels, considering its less-than-stellar box office performance, but RED 2 still makes me want to return for more. If they could cut down on the new characters, and find a plot worthy of actors this enjoyable to watch, this could be a series worth hanging onto. If not, well RED 2 is still a solid sequel and a fun way to spend an afternoon with a bucket of popcorn. And considering some of the other action comedies to come out this year, it positively shines.