More turns out to be less in “Red 2,” an obligatory sequel that can’t quite recapture the sly, laid-back pleasures of its cheerfully ridiculous predecessor. While Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, et al. are still good for a few chuckles as a gang of superannuated government assassins, this globe-trotting action-comedy diversion applies a bigger-is-better philosophy across the board, upping the stakes, the firepower and the travel budget, but keeping real thrills and laughs at a modest trickle. “Red” became a surprise hit in 2010 with nearly $200 million worldwide, a feat that this Summit release will be hard-pressed to match even with solid opening numbers.
Domestic bliss doesn’t last long for “retired and extremely dangerous” black-ops CIA operative Frank Moses (Willis) and his loopy civilian g.f., Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). Shortly after his old partner Marvin Boggs (Malkovich) dies in an explosion — it’s no spoiler to report that he doesn’t stay dead for long — Frank finds himself being threatened and interrogated by a U.S. official (a reliably nasty Neal McDonough) about his possible ties to a bona fide weapon of mass destruction that went missing during the Cold War.
Not long after Frank breaks free, dodging and unleashing a spray of bullets in one of many heavy-artillery action scenes, he discovers he’s being targeted by not one but two assassins: regal sharpshooter Victoria (Mirren), who’s enough of a pal to give him fair warning and a head start, and the much more dangerous Han (Korean star Byung-hun Lee). Frank, Sarah and Marvin (see?) head to Europe in search of answers, with Frank trying to keep Sarah out of harm’s way, even though she’s all too ready for some transatlantic danger.
Zipping from London to Paris to Moscow, the script loses no time in piling on the new characters, many of whom are introduced with the sort of handy single-phrase sound bites that anticipate greater investment in the story than most viewers will care to muster. Apparently we are meant to be impressed by the fact that Han is “the best contract killer in the world,” while sexy Russian spy Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones) isn’t just our hero’s old flame, she’s “Frank’s kryptonite.” No such descriptions are offered in the case of British scientist Edward Bailey, who’s been locked up for decades and may know the missing weapon’s whereabouts, but given that he’s played by Anthony Hopkins and likes to scribble equations on walls, one almost expects to hear him announced as “Hannibal Lecter meets John Nash.”
At times director Dean Parisot (taking over for Robert Schwentke) and scribes Jon and Erich Hoeber (who adapted the first pic from Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s graphic novel) seem to be aiming for the winking insouciance of an “Ocean’s” movie, the sort of loosey-goosey, all-hands-on-deck caper that knows better than to take anything — especially murder — too seriously. An amusing scene in which Mirren’s Victoria gabs away on the telephone while absent-mindedly dissolving a corpse in acid is typical of the breezily offhand approach here, and the use of stylized graphic-novel illustrations as scene transitions further serves to keep the proceedings at a cartoonish distance.
But while it’s never less than watchable, this sort of droll, dark comedy is harder to pull off than it looks, and the lightness that “Red 2” seems to be aiming for ultimately feels more like laziness, from the cut-rate quality of the banter to the busy, cluttered nature of the storytelling. Boilerplate twists and indifferent plotting were no hindrance to enjoying “Red,” which got by on its marvelous actors and the wry, even poignant conceit of professional killers being continually made aware of their own mortality. But that irony had more or less exhausted its potential by film’s end, and the actors returning for duty, though still marvelous, have little to do but recycle their character quirks, invariably to lesser effect.
Parker, who provided an audience entry point the first time around, is less winsome here as someone whose default personality setting seems to be stubborn indignation, and whose thirst for adventure is matched only by her exasperating incompetence in the field. The script falls flat in its attempts to turn her Sarah and Zeta-Jones’ Katja into heated rivals for Frank’s affections; it doesn’t help that Willis has scarcely enough chemistry with either actress to light a match. Malkovich’s crusty paranoiac routine and Brian Cox’s boozy Russian romantic, comic highlights in the earlier film, are given short shrift here, and while Mirren once again does everything in her estimable power to lend the picture a pulse and a personality, the near-climactic image of her pulling out the big guns feels like a tired rehash.
Of the cast newcomers, David Thewlis at least makes a brief, fierce impression as a tweedy assassin with expensive taste in wine, while the ever-compelling Lee (“G.I. Joe: Retaliation”) gets to show off his martial-arts prowess in the film’s best pure fight scene, impressively staged inside a convenience store. Tech credits are sturdy but unremarkable; location lensing in France and the U.K. offers strong atmosphere, though sequences set but not shot in Russia suffer by comparison.