Perhaps future pop-culture historians will be able to understand the root cause of the Old People Craze Of 2010, a still-unexplained nationwide epidemic of gerontomania that put Betty White on Saturday Night Live, made Tavi Gevinson dye her hair gray, and turned The Expendables into a viable blockbuster model, kicking off a cycle of past-their-prime action vehicles that will continue into the foreseeable future. This fad also turned Red—a loose Warren Ellis adaptation about a group of retired CIA operatives—into an unlikely sort-of-hit. Its sequel, Red 2, downplays the no-longer-fashionable retirement angle, instead focusing on its characters’ blasé attitudes toward death. Like its predecessor, it’s a one-joke movie; the difference is that this time around, the joke is better.
Red 2 stars Bruce Willis and John Malkovich as black-ops agents who are targeted by their former employers as part of a cover-up related to one of their Cold War-era assignments. (This is also the plot of Red, which makes Red 2 as much an exposition-less remake as a sequel.) With Willis’ girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker in tow, they race around Europe, following leads and tussling with CIA goons. Meanwhile, their former comrade-in-arms Helen Mirren—introduced in a hotel room littered with corpses—is given the plum assignment of assassinating them.
Red 2’s snappy dialogue and zippy pace suggest a ’60s-style globe-trotting caper comedy, albeit one with a lot more killing. Though Parker is the team’s civilian outsider, the movie wisely avoids turning her into an audience surrogate or straight man; Willis’ under-reactions and Malkovich’s aloof weirdness are the movie’s core, and counterposing them with a surprised voice of reason would rob the film of its transgressive kicks. Interestingly, Red 2 may be one of the few films improved—or at least refined—by its PG-13 rating; despite the high body count, violence is never lingered on, which reinforces the idea that it’s the characters’ nihilism and not the violence that’s supposed to be funny.