Because the general rule is that sequels rarely are as good as the originals that spawn them, I was not optimistic as I settled in to watch “Red 2,” but what to my wondering eyes should appear but a highly entertaining film filled with action, adventure, romance, humor, and mystery. And yes I liked it better than the 2010 original.
After his adventures in “Red,” former CIA Agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is lying low and attempting to achieve some sense of normalcy in his life with his girlfriend, Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), but his old friend Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) has other ideas. Marvin finds Frank and insists that some bad dudes are looking for them, but Frank wants no part of helping Marvin prove his theory. However Marvin manages to get Frank’s attention because as he drives away, his car explodes, and the next thing Frank knows he is attending his pal’s funeral.
Even as he stands staring down at Marvin laid out in a casket, Frank refuses to believe that the guy is dead, but he does get up and say a few nice, albeit strange, things about him. After the service, some guys show up and haul Frank off to be interrogated, but before he has the chance to answer many questions, a nasty killer named Jack Horton (Neal McDonough) shows up and tells Frank if he doesn’t comply with his wishes, he will torture Sarah.
Now Jack has badly underestimated Frank’s prowess as an operative, because Frank manages to escape when Marvin (It turns out he is really alive, but don’t ask how.) shows up to help him. Sarah joins the two of them, and Marvin explains that he and Frank are wanted for what they know about an operation named Nightshade, which involved smuggling a nuclear weapon into Russia during the Cold War. While they are trying to figure out what to do next, they get a call from Victoria (Helen Mirren), one of their former colleagues, who says she has been hired to kill Frank and that Han Cho-Bai (Lee Byung-hun), the best contract killer in the world, also wants Frank dead.
From this point on, the plot becomes a bit complex as the three of them go to Paris, where they hope to find a fellow known as The Frog (David Thewlis), who may have vital information about Nightshade. When they arrive in Paris, however, they encounter Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a Russian agent who has a past with Frank and who also wants to find out about Nightshade. She agrees to help them find The Frog, who ultimately gives them the key to his safety deposit box containing information about Dr. Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), the physicist who invented the bomb for Operation Nightshade. They discover that Bailey has been incarcerated in a London asylum for 32 years, and in order to solve the mystery of Nightshade, they have to figure out how to get to him.
“Red 2” offers plenty of action combined with lots of laughs along the way, but the best thing about this film is the stellar ensemble cast that includes three Academy Award winners (Hopkins, Mirren, and Zeta-Jones), a two-time Academy Award nominee (Malkovich), and a two-time Golden Globe winner (Parker). Willis and Malkovich are simply sensational together. Their constant repartee throughout the film is consistently fresh and original, and early in the film when Marvin is imploring Frank to help him, he says, “Frank, you haven’t killed anyone in months.” Marvin also constantly offers Frank advice about his relationship with Sarah, and in the film’s production notes, Willis and Malkovich offered some insight into their characters.
“Frank is ill-equipped to handle a basic relationship, and Marvin is only too happy to dispense advice on how to make a relationship work, yet there’s a good chance Marvin knows nothing about the subject,” Willis said.
“The old adage ‘a stopped clock is right twice a day’ is applicable here because Marvin is most likely idiotic about relationships and any knowledge he thinks he has probably came from a self-help book because I can’t see Marvin in a relationship,” Malkovich said.
All of the characters in the film are wonderfully diverse, and in the production notes Mirren made an interesting point about them.
“The great thing about all these characters is that while they lead the most extraordinary lives they have very ordinary problems and are saddled with the same inefficient inadequacies that the rest of us have.”
In addition to the fine performances turned in by Willis and Malkovich, both Parker and Zeta-Jones are outstanding as Frank’s current and former girlfriends respectively, and their instant dislike for each other is palpable. The claws definitely come out when these two meet.
As good as everyone is in this film, however, the most fun for me was watching Mirren and Hopkins, two of the most distinguished and talented performers in the world, literally revel in their roles here. It just doesn’t get any better than seeing the brilliant actress from “The Queen” wielding all kinds of assault weapons. And Hopkins’ portrayal of the demented scientist is off the charts as he brings to this part the same demonic glee he did to the role of the unforgettable Hannibal Lecter.
For action aficionados “Reds 2” offers a veritable feast from gun battles to car chases to explosions to a couple of the best fight scenes I’ve ever watched. Lee, who plays Han, has an apt last name because his martial arts moves would make King Bruce proud.
In the production notes, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura explained what the filmmakers intended for “Red 2.”
“From the beginning, our goal was to provide the audience with a bigger, more expansive experience than the first movie. But one of the dangers with sequels is that they can get too silly and soft and Bruce and myself were very cognizant of that during the development. Frank Moses is still a hard guy who’s going to pull a gun before he asks a question, and Bruce was always grinding, pushing, analyzing because he wants the best out of the movie.”
“Red 2” definitely is a rarity in that it’s a sequel better than the original, and it earns a highly respectable eight. If there is a third installment, I will be front row center.