2010`s Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief was generally written off as a big studio attempt to come out with a franchise to replace Harry Potter, which was nearing its end at the time. However, it did do well enough to warrant a follow-up, based on Rick Riordan`s second Percy Jackson novel, The Sea of Monsters. So, does this seafaring sequel stay afloat or leave the series dead in the water?
In 2010, cheerfully ridiculous action comedy Red turned up in cinemas with an absolute gem of a premise. Instead of going younger and more nubile, as per Hollywood's wont, its cast would be led by Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich, all playing badass ex-secret service agents who had been branded Retired Extremely Dangerous (R.E.D., geddit?). Great idea, okay execution, good-ish movie. What's surprising about Red 2 is that it's actually better than its predecessor in almost every way. With a different director (Dean Parisot) at the helm, the film revels in its concept, making its script feel tighter and the action more bruising even if it really isn't.
Frank (Willis) is still trying his hardest to properly retire, which isn't going too well now that his girlfriend Sarah (Parker) has had a taste of the super-spy business. His quiet life is uprooted once again when his crazy best friend and former colleague Marvin (Malkovich) turns up to warn him of imminent danger arriving courtesy of Nightshade, the lethal weapon they lost track of during the Cold War. With governments putting contract killers like Victoria (Mirren) and Han (Lee) on their trail, the trio must solve the mystery surrounding Prof. Bailey (Hopkins), the man who created Nightshade and has been thought dead for decades.
The biggest draw for Red 2 remains the same as for its predecessor: the mindbogglingly accomplished cast, wielding guns and snappy one-liners, taking no prisoners, looking impossibly cool. It's why we go to the movies. The trouble with having such a great cast is that the movie might get lost in the shuffle of so many huge personalities vying for attention. This is where Parisot's skill at handling a comic ensemble demonstrated to great effect in sublime cult-classic Galaxy Quest really shines through. Rather than cycling through all the characters in a perfunctory way, he somehow manages to give them all several beats to breathe within the breakneck pace of the film.
As a result, the chemistry amongst his cast really crackles, and so does the action and comedy of it all. Willis slips effortlessly back into the skin of his reluctant hero, while Malkovich's Marvin is as barmy and full of non sequiturs as ever not to mention relationship advice that he seems woefully unqualified to give. Parker is tart and sexy, playing well off Catherine Zeta-Jones at her very sultriest as Frank's former Russian paramour Katja. Even Lee in what would typically be an underbaked role drops zingers as well as he does kicks and punches.
The greatest reward of Red 2 lies in watching Proper Thespians Mirren and Hopkins having the times of their lives. Mirren has marginally less screen-time in this film, but she's spectacular anyway, brandishing guns that seem to fit perfectly well in her patrician hands while gleefully sending up her own Oscar-winning role in The Queen. Hopkins, meanwhile, is clearly relishing the opportunity to play every facet of Bailey: from genial to bonkers and all the shades of crazy and clueless in between.
If there's anything that detracts from the general sense of chirpy joy that pervades the entire film, it's the rickety plot that literally implodes on itself by the end. Parisot actually does an admirable job of disguising or glossing over the sillier moments in the script, bluffing his way through Sarah's encounter with inexplicably spineless master-spy The Frog (David Thewlis). He keeps all the plates spinning well until the film's final ten minutes, which manage to go nuclear and anti-climactic at the same time.
That's probably a big reason why critics have generally responded sniffily to the film, labelling it inconsequential at best and a lazy retread of its predecessor at worst. While it's certainly true that the film isn't perfect, it's hard to begrudge Red 2 its muddled ending when the rest of the film is such a blast of cool, summery fun. Sometimes, all you want is to see some great actors playing against type, toting guns and biting out quips, in a blithely ridiculous movie with its default setting switched to 'entertain'. Red 2 checks all those boxes and more.
Summary: Blissfully bonkers in the best way.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars