I had little interest in seeing Red 2 as I walked into the theater. The 2010 film was middling at best. In my review I described it as “one of those films you don’t mind watching just as much as you don’t seek it out.” The same could be said of Red 2 and yet, it’s a far better film that drops the need to focus energy on the fact the characters aren’t your stereotypical, young CIA agents and international assassins. Instead it tells a story that just so happens to feature such characters.
At just under two hours I walked in worried I’d want to leave 15 minutes in. Fact of the matter is, the film goes by smoothly, largely benefiting because it gets back to action that’s tangible rather than merely a dull exercise in CG overload (aka the official motto of Summer Movie Season 2013).
All summer long we’ve watched as buildings and cities have been laid to waste by human-controlled robots, superhuman aliens, men in robot suits, zombies, monsters from another dimension and nuclear strikes from space, not to mention the post-apocalyptic aftermath of a dystopic future. The fact Red 2 is an actioner of a more traditional vein gives it a timely bump in perception, where under any other circumstances it may not have appealed to me as much. “Timing is everything,” isn’t a phrase without merit.
Beyond the action quotient, I’m was also alarmed to find the screenplay was written by the same siblings that penned the first film, Jon and Erich Hoeber. The first film depended on aging humor and cornball punchlines and was extraordinarily weak on story. The sequel, however, still plays up the goofy one-liners, but here they don’t come across as desperate, instead landing nicely within the context of the narrative, which is just as much a romantic comedy as it is a story following the lead characters as they attempt to clear their name while stopping a nuclear strike. Yes, I’m sure that sounds less than appealing to a lot of you, but I’m telling you, it actually works.
The film wastes zero time establishing its characters, and I can’t tell if it’s because the Hoebers trust we know these people or understand we can get to know them more along the way, but either way, it’s a good decision and something I hope even more screenwriters learn to understand. A character isn’t defined by how much information you give me upfront, it’s about the small things we learn along the way. The first time you meet someone you don’t ask for their life story do you?
This isn’t to say Red 2 is rife with deep character exploration throughout, but when it comes to action films of this sort, there is only so much information we need to know and unlike movies such as White House Down, the main characters don’t need to be saddled with a young daughter for us to take an interest in their story.
Of course, I say this while at the same time much of Red 2 focuses on the relationship between Bruce Willis as Frank Moses and his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), with Sarah taking a massive interest in Frank’s past life as a CIA operative with violent tendencies. It doesn’t help she’s received some encouragement from the colorful Marvin, played by John Malkovich with just as much energy and eclectic enthusiasm as in the first film.
The difference, however, is that unlike the young girl in White House Down, Sarah’s actions are looked at as comedic, not as a constant, mind-numbing attempt at tension and drama. Jealous of Frank’s relationship with a past fling she leans to Malkovich and says, “Can’t we just kill her?” loud enough for everyone to hear. She’s got attitude and a sense of adventure and I liked her for it to the point even if she were to become the stereotypical damsel in distress, I trusted the film wouldn’t play that card for the duration, and it doesn’t.
The first film centered on this band of Retired and Extremely Dangerous (R.E.D.) operatives — which also includes Helen Mirren as Victoria, an MI6 agent still working in the field — as they were being tracked for what they knew. This time around they’ve been charged with information they are complete unfamiliar with and must get to the bottom of the mystery and at the same time clear their names, the process of which will take them from the States to London, Paris and Moscow.
Willis and Parker bicker like the new couple they are. He wants to protect her while she only wants to get in on the action. Malkovich, like the first movie, is as paranoid as ever and consistently one step ahead as the U.S. Government, led by Neal McDonough, believes Willis and his gang are after a Cold War nuclear device referred to as Nightshade. McDonough’s character proceeds in an act first, ask questions later fashion and the global adventure begins.
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anthony Hopkins and David Thewlis are added to the mix, adding their own flair to the proceedings and director Dean Parisot (Fun with Dick and Jane, “Justified”) keeps things moving as each scene leaves very little fat to slow things down.
The youthful addition to the film is Byung-hun Lee (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) and yet even he has just turned 43-years-old even if he looks only 30 at most. His addition, however, is vital as his martial arts talents bring a close-combat aspect to the story, breaking the monotony of continuous gun fire and car chases. For what it’s worth, Red 2 runs the gamut of action beats, never settling on just one option as any scene could feature a variety of alternatives including gun shots, car chases, poison, roundhouse kicks or nuclear explosions.
As surprising as it may seem, Red 2 worked for me in more ways than one. The comedy was light but satisfying, the action wasn’t over-bearing and for the most part engaging and it’s hard to beat the cast, all of which own their roles and give themselves over to the material.
I’m not above admitting my impression of Red 2 may have a lot to do with the lackluster actioners this summer has offered. It might be because I finally saw a movie that dealt with action on a human level rather than the spectacle of watching a building tumble and the assumption people probably got out of the skyscraper before it crashed to the street below. Movies don’t exist in a vacuum and in the case of Red 2 I’d say it benefits largely from the cinematic world around it. Whether I’ll find just as much enjoyment out of it a few years from now I’m unsure, but at this moment in time it delivered beyond expectations. Something I haven’t been able to say about a summer movie all year.