The new action spy thriller “Red 2" starring Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker and Helen Mirren opens at a Costco. The only action at the moment is a shopping cart with a bum wheel. A heated discussion about backyard grills and power sprays is underway. Until a box, a bomb and an old spy on Aisle 3 threaten to upset this banal scene.
It’s official, the retired and extremely dangerous — a.k.a. RED — crew of aging international spies is back for another round of AARP-style havoc. Which means the world will be a safer place — eventually — and youngsters, that would be anyone under 40, will learn to respect their elders or pay for it.
What was a minor gag in 2010’s “Red” has become a major thread in “Red 2,” with the issues of aging and retirement front and center. Even the movie’s central intrigues — a long lost weapon of mass destruction and the brilliant scientist who created it — are old. Thank you, Anthony Hopkins, for showing how delightfully devious a villain with memory loss can be.
Screenwriting brothers Jon and Erich Hoeber are back for Round 2 as well, but directing duties have shifted to Dean Parisot. No doubt the hope was that Parisot could do to the action genre what he did to the “Star Trek” universe in the spot-on satire of 1999’s “Galaxy Quest.” He has, and he hasn’t. “Red 2" is much more of a mixed bag than it should have been.
But back to Costco. The legendary Frank Moses (Willis), determined to stay retired this time, is commandeering the cart. He doesn’t want Sarah (Parker), the girl he fell for over the phone in “Red,” to get caught in any more crossfire. She, on the other hand, is dying for more time in the spy game.
In a very good move, Malkovich’s role as electronics-wizard Marvin and his spy-jinx have been ratcheted up, while his crazy has been toned down. Now he’s more of a smart, insistent noodge, and the movie is better for it. In fact, if everyone delivered their lines with the rat-a-tat-tat precision of Malkovich, Mirren and Hopkins, the studio might have had a better movie on its hands.
Meanwhile, crazy and old has been reserved for Bailey (Hopkins), a scientist the Brits locked up as a mental case 32 years ago. CIA interest in an old covert operation called Nightshade has resurfaced. Somehow, Frank and Marvin factor in, which once again makes them targets. It’s complicated, and the movie spends far too much time trying to explain.
Suffice it to say that in short order, there is an ever widening circle of sharpshooters looking to take them out, including old friend Victoria (Mirren), that classy British assassin whose romance on the run with Russian master-spy Ivan (Brian Cox) continues to sizzle.
The movie does not pull back on the action front — in fact, the run and gun scenes are endless. Agent Jack Horton (Neal McDonough always a good bad guy) is in charge of the CIA dirty work, and newcomer Han (Byung Hun Lee) brings martial arts action to the mix as he decides whether to settle an old grudge against Frank or throw in with him.
But if anything, the sequel is more focused on romance.
Sarah and Frank are working through relationship issues already when Catherine Zeta-Jones turns up as Katja, Frank’s sultry ex. Katja’s big dilemma is whether to shoot Frank or seduce him, while Sarah’s is whether to shoot or strangle her.
Although the romance between Victoria and Ivan heats things up, the one between Sarah and Frank tends to cool things down. Some of the cute-factor of the first — he kidnapped her to save her — has been lost now that they’re a couple. Sparks do fly on occasion, mostly when Sarah uses her biggest undercover asset — a kiss that can apparently melt the heart of any villain in any country. It makes Frank crazy jealous. But for the most part, he’s just so mellow, and Willis’ inherent charm goes only so far.
The “thing” the world needs saving from besides another bad romance is that mysterious weapon Bailey made. To get Bailey out of lock-up and to recover the bomb before it gets into the wrong hands is what keeps everyone on the move. Still, for all the pyrotechnics, you never believe that love, the world or the senior spies are in any real danger.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for pervasive action and violence including frenetic gunplay, and for some language and drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: In general release