RED 2 looks a whole lot like RED 1 from my perspective: a breezy, lightweight action comedy that's enjoyable while you’re watching it, but doesn't leave the slightest impression behind. In many ways, this is a selling point. Considering this summer has featured one “happy ending” in which the hero injects himself with a fatal disease, one comedy about the Biblical end of the world and the sight of perennial nice guy Clark Kent snapping someone's neck like a chicken bone, we could use a little more breezy in our cinematic diet.
RED 2 seems to have the cure for that, at least in the most superficial terms. Its charming cast has plenty of opportunities to shoot some bad guys, toss out some one-liners and generally revel in how awesome they are. This goes double for many of the below-billing figures like Neal McDonough and Mary-Louise Parker, who get to strut their stuff with the big stars and often steal the show in the bargain.
Beyond that, however, RED 2 doesn't have a whole lot going for it. It deploys its cast the way another summer blockbuster might deploy its effects shots: designed for maximum impact on the reveal and then gradually going nowhere once we’re suitably shocked and awed. The ramshackle storyline concerns a missing nuclear weapon that our heroes have to hunt down before bad people do worse things with it. Their ranks include Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), reluctant former spook and his girlfriend Sarah (Parker), whose spy envy explodes into a full-bore epidemic when the paranoid Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) shows up with a dire warning about impending assassination.
It's all fairly boilerplate and exists mainly to juggle the ensemble in a relatively elegant fashion. In that sense, RED 2 works… though everyone pushes and shoves against each other a little too intensely. Catherine Zeta-Jones (playing one of Moses's former flames) never quite finds her comfort zone, while Anthony Hopkins (as a possibly unhinged scientist) makes up for his apparent boredom by channeling the late Richard Burton. The rest of the cast, however, relishes their screen time, and in a lot of ways, RED 2 doesn't need to do anything more. Watching Helen Mirren out-Croft Angelina Jolie is a rare pleasure, while Byung-Hun Lee – the artist formerly known as Storm Shadow – acquits himself well in an otherwise thankless straight-man role. The quips and jokes ring true, director Dean Parisot keeps the action scenes humming, and though a trifle long RED 2 never overstays its welcome.
Indeed, there's nothing wrong with it at all... save the fact that it doesn't show much of a purpose beyond exploiting a marketable brand name. The individual gags hum, but they rarely add up to anything, and the actors are all so effortlessly charming that they almost vanish into the background. You can easily remember a good moment or two, but would be hard-pressed to connect them to this film. It feels amorphous and anonymous, devoid of its own identity and struggling to say anything interesting on its own terms. It exists because its stars are charming, which makes a refreshing change from business as usual (it's shocking when Hollywood even acknowledges the existence of people over 40, let alone bases an entire comic-book-inspired comedy thriller around them), but doesn't change RED 2's fundamental lack of forward impetus.
Most tellingly, the sequel loses the wistfulness of the first film: the sense of these figures trying to relive the glory days and not quite succeeding. The glory days are back here, and with them, the characters’ underlying tragedy vanishes. I can’t complain too loudly since it helps RED 2 stay light on its feet. God knows we need more of that this summer, and I'm recommending it on that level if no other. Having said that, something really great might have happened here and it didn't quite make it.. much like the first RED. This time we leave with a little more of a smile on our faces, but that still covers up a whole lot of lost potential.