Following a network of aging professional killers, Red 2 essentially weaponizes middle-aged malaise. Even though Frank (Bruce Willis) is enthusiastic to stock up on household niceties during the Costco shopping spree that opens the film, his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary Louise-Parker, doing her not entirely tapped-out Weeds routine), is starting to feel over-domesticated and bored with her erstwhile spy-hunter beau. Worse yet, Frank’s LSD-fried former colleague, Marvin (John Malkovich, being John Malkovich), is certain that an attempt on their lives is imminent. It’s not just the hallucinogens, as it turns out. The trio is quickly targeted for assassination when word begins to leak about the location of a next-level nuke codenamed Nightshade. The events cause Frank, Sarah, and Marvin to go globetrotting amid plenty of spy-game nonsense (explosions, gunplay, impossible escapes, etc.) and gallows humor, and for Sarah, it’s like the homicidal honeymoon she’s never had…for the most part.
The exception would be when Frank gets within eyesight of Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), his Cold War-era lover and nemesis, who easily ropes the gang into a deadly competition to secure Nightshade and its creator, Dr. Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), the nuclear age’s “DaVinci of Death.” It’s a minor delight to watch Hopkins have some rambunctious fun with villainy again, and even Zeta-Jones proves engaging as a gaudy seductress. The cast, which also includes Helen Mirren, returning as Victoria, and David Thewlis as the Frog, a poison connoisseur, is fantastic, and when the film airs on the side of its more perverse tendencies, it’s genuinely entertaining. Bailey savoring the effects of a vial of fatal nerve gas on his victims, Sarah’s surprisingly effective technique for getting the Frog to talk, Victoria pouring a pair of gallon-size jugs of acid over a body in a bathtub, and Victoria’s continued flirtations with Ivan (Brian Cox) all prove to be mere flickers of personality in this bland sequel.
Dean Parisot, working from a repetitive, backstory-heavy script, makes the sloppy mix of death and laughs work about as often as it did in Red, but the sequel is light years away from the filmmaker’s brilliant Galaxy Quest, which deftly balanced action and subtle, clever celebrity satire. In contrast to that film’s clear, concise pacing, Red 2 is edited into a sometimes jarringly hurried blur of spin kicks, car drifts, and fire fights, with occasional asides marked by bickering that ranges from the vaguely amusing to the gratingly explanatory. Under the clutter, the film charts Sarah’s increasing attraction to death and danger, but does so in a consistently half-measured fashion, fetishizing violence and sociopathic behavior while depicting murder as uniformly bloodless and tidy. It gives the film a good-for-all-ages polish that renders the more violent passages of the story awkward and decidedly anti-cathartic.
As a black comedy, Red 2 feels forced, and as an action film, it’s merely ignorable, but the film is outright discomfiting when it gets righteous, such as when Sarah uses a siege on London’s Iranian embassy to momentarily evoke a feminist revenge flick. The entire sequence feels out of place, another desperate ploy to appeal to women toward the tail end of an awfully expensive and grossly extended Cialis commercial.