Consider being Bruce Willis for a moment. A full decade past your last great performance (The Sixth Sense, of course) and another half-decade than that past your peak star power, you are still working almost constantly, when it's clear you probably don't really have to. Unlike many other other action stars of the same vintage, you continue taking on interesting projects, working with Wes Anderson on Moonrise Kingdom or Rian Johnson on Looper to balance out the Die Hard and Expendables sequels. And yet, of all those options, the movie you actually seem to be giving a performance in-- actually enjoying, for that matter-- is Red 2.
I can't explain it either, especially because Red 2 is otherwise such a hobbled mess, a sequel to a modest hit that nobody asked for but which treats its characters and their many quirks as if they're icons for the audience. Willis reprises his role as Frank Moses, a former black-ops CIA agent trying once again to settle into retirement-- this time with his much-younger gal Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker)-- but sucked back in when he and his old partner Marvin (John Malkovich) are falsely accused of having been nuclear terrorists back in the day. It's not totally clear why this happens-- the film cites Wikileaks as if that explains everything-- but it doesn't especially matter, since it gives Frank, Sarah and Marvin a reason to go on the run, tangle with a hired assassin played by Byung-hun Lee as well as a ruthless government agent played by Neal McDonough. Helen Mirren, of course, is also back as the steely Victoria, but it takes so long for her to cross paths with our other heroes that it's easy to forget that.
Eventually the road leads to Anthony Hopkins, doing some impressively daffy work as Bailey, a former nuclear scientist who's been locked up in a London loony bin for… well, some reason. Hopkins, like Willis, seems to be coming alive onscreen in a way he hasn't in ages, and he races around the screen like a pinball, smiling and nailing line deliveries and bringing the film up to his speed, for a minute at least. Turns out there's another layer to the character that's far less interesting, and though Hopkins is central to the frenetic narrative as it clambers forward, the film never gets more engaging than when Hopkins is playing amiably crazy. How has no one given him the chance to play Hannibal Lecter as your wacky uncle before now?
Catherine Zeta-Jones pops up for a while as one of Frank's old flames, and Brian Cox makes a too-brief return as Victoria's Russian admirer, but the promise of seeing all these actors-of-a-certain-age cutting loose with machine guns feel far less fresh than it did the first time around. Director Dean Parisot, whose last feature was 2005's Fun With Dick And Jane, has no sense of how to string the comedy along and horrendous action instincts, staging incoherent car chases and even managing to squander Byung-hun Lee's considerable martial arts chops (that might be because Lee was kicking Willis's stunt double a lot, but it's still a lot of roundhouse kicks short of satisfying). The movie never establishes the spry comic tone it thinks it has, so that when the action starts and a surprising amount of bodies pile up, it feels exhausting instead of adventurous. The diehard fans of Red may feel differently. But do those people even exist?
I can't possibly explain why Willis seems so relaxed and enjoyable here, by far his best straightforward leading man in a decade, since the material isn't remotely worth it, and everything else in Red 2 feels so tired and begrudging. It's not the summer's laziest sequel-- that's still Grown Ups 2 by a wide margin-- but it's a comfortable second place. When only Adam Sandler is outdoing you in pandering to his audience, it's probably OK to retire for real this time.
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