The world is full of lackluster movies. But the world is not full of Helen Mirren in a Marlene Dietrich fedora, or Helen Mirren in full-tilt eveningwear disposing of a bothersome corpse in a marble bathroom, or Helen Mirren firing a massive rifle-type thingie while sprawled on a picnic blanket — in her stocking feet, no less. We all know there are few great roles for "older" actresses, but perhaps worse than that, there are so few movies that will allow them to just be, without playing a role model or a wronged wife or a matriarch facing a life-threatening illness. Dean Parisot's Red 2 isn't as much fun as its predecessor, the 2010 Red, was. But watching Mirren being fabulous? It never gets old.
Red, which was based on the series of graphic novels by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner and directed by Robert Schwentke, stole onto the scene without having the luxury of knowing it would become a surprise success. Even though it featured Bruce Willis playing, for the trillionth time, an aging action hero, the movie still had a casual, tossed-off quality; it glowed with the aura of not trying too hard. Red 2 gives the impression of being oodles more fun, while really just being more self-conscious. The gags are clever and goofy — a villain puts an extraordinary number of bullet holes into a row of parked vehicles while handily missing his two targets — but the connective tissue between them is stretched too thin. It's the kind of movie where you spend most of your time waiting for the next thing to happen, rather than living in the moment.
That's not to say Parisot — who must always be hailed for giving us the extraordinary 1999 Galaxy Quest — doesn't have some fun with the details. And he clearly knows that the plot is beside the point. Willis returns as retired CIA black-ops guy Frank Moses — "RED" is an acronym for "retired, extremely dangerous" — who's now trying to live a quiet life with his sweetheart, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), just shopping at Costco and the like. He's lured out of retirement, again, by his nutball pal Marvin (played by John Malkovich, in a performance that's a marvel of doofiness). Apparently, the wrong people — are they ever the right ones? — are trying to procure a Cold War-era nuclear weapon. Moses, Sarah, and Marvin head to France, London, and Moscow in a concerted effort to (a) stem the damage and (b) not be killed. Their path is strewed with baddies, semi-baddies, and possible nonbaddies in the form of Catherine Zeta-Jones' Natasha-type hottie Katja, Anthony Hopkins' mad, bumbling scientist Bailey, and, sexiest of all, Byun-Hung Lee's Han, a contract killer who thinks nothing of leaping into hand-to-hand combat dressed in a Sean Connery-era James Bond suit and French-cuffed shirt, complete with cuff links.
It should all be so much fun. But Red 2 just feels dutiful, as if it's relieved that all its parts somehow fit together properly. Even though it's probably supposed to look glamorous and glowing, cinematographer Enrique Chediak gives the picture a generic action-movie sheen that's decidedly inelegant. Willis is reasonably charming, in his "Just me and my cueball!" way, and Parker is amiable enough, though her character gets saddled with some degrading behavior masquerading as self-denigration: Jealous of Moses' history with the superhot Katja, Sarah goes shopping in Paris and kits herself out in some really ugly stuff.
Then again, how could Parker — lovely as she is — compete with the radiant Mirren? Red 2, disappointing in so many ways, isn't torture to watch, in part because Mirren has even more to do than she did in the first installment. If you love her, you really want to see her in a glorious décolletage-revealing evening gown and dangling earrings, idly but expertly pouring acid on some poor dead jamoke while carrying on an otherwise normal cellphone conversation. In Red 2, Mirren works it without working at it. After a certain age, most women feel they have to try harder. It's only natural, and deep down Mirren may feel that way too. The difference is that she never, ever lets it show.