“Red,” the 2010 sleeper hit and graphic novel adaptation, felt refreshing. Not only were the movie’s heroes all older than 50, but the action-comedy paid as much attention to the comedy as to the action, and the result was effervescently fun. Sequels are, for the most part, inherently stale, so it’s no shock the luster has faded in “Red 2.” The bigger surprise is just how clunky and unsatisfying this follow-up feels.
As the movie opens, CIA retiree Frank (Bruce Willis) has returned to the quiet life, shopping at Costco with his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). As he attempts to embrace the joys of the ’burbs while searching for giant bags of shrimp, she’s despondent, staring at an elderly couple wrangling a jumbo pack of toilet paper. She craves adventure. Luckily, Frank’s quirky former partner, the conspiracy theorist Marvin (John Malkovich), appears with a new plan in mind.
The trio ends up traveling to Paris, Moscow and London trying to discern the meaning of Operation Nightshade. Frank and Marvin have been accused of spearheading the deadly mission, even though they know nothing about it. New enemies have cropped up to take the three heroes down, including the world’s best contract killer, Han (Byung-hun Lee), the sadistic Jack (Neal McDonough) and even their old friend Victoria (Helen Mirren).
To spice things up, Catherine Zeta-Jones materializes to play Katja, Frank’s ex-paramour. And Anthony Hopkins shows up in the role of an institutionalized scientist who may be the key to the Nightshade puzzle.
The plot is fairly busy, given that it feels like an afterthought. The point of the movie is action, and it’s all here: shootouts, car chases, shootouts during car chases, hand-to-hand combat, helicopter crashes, bomb explosions and death by paper crane (Han is talented in the art of lethal origami).
While the action sequences in the first “Red” were impressive, the banter elevated the movie, giving it cross-generational appeal. Sarah and Frank had great chemistry, Frank and Marvin exchanged amusing barbs, Sarah and Victoria shared dating advice. There doesn’t seem to be much attention paid to dialogue in “Red 2.” Malkovich is funny when he speaks, though he spends most of the film with a dumbfounded expression, his mouth in the shape of a perfect O. Hopkins, meanwhile, mostly repeats the phrase “jolly good” over and over. But nowhere is the triviality of dialogue more evident than in the editing. There are numerous occasions when mouths and words are completely out of sync.
In a similar vein, while there’s action to spare, much of it looks computer-generated. Neither the first film nor this endeavor seek to represent reality, which explains why no character can be contained by handcuffs and how Frank probably could take down 300 Spartans without a scratch. But at some point the dearth of believability becomes distracting.
“Red” director Robert Schwentke didn’t return for the sequel. (His latest, “R.I.P.D.,” also comes out this weekend.) But “Red 2” director Dean Parisot can hardly be the only one to blame. “Red 2” is merely part of the Hollywood machine that takes any surprise hit and churns out a follow-up as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that means to quality, along with anything that made “Red” special, ends up like all of Frank’s adversaries: collateral damage.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains intense action sequences, mostly bloodless violence, language and drug references. 116 minutes.