'RED 2' is faithful to 2010's 'RED' in that it makes very little sense and maximizes the talent on display. Entertaining without long-lasting satisfaction (seriously, does anyone remember what happened in 'Red' other than Helen Mirren busting up bad guys?). Mirren, Bruce Willis, and John Malkovich return as RED — Retired Extremely Dangerous — operatives, trained assassins who balance daily life with random acts of spy work. Director Dean Parisot ('Galaxy Quest') reaps every bit fun he can out of the concept, pushing Willis harder than he's worked in the last five years. Mirren busting up bad guys is still the highlight, but the sequel easily surpasses its predecessor in terms of pure enjoyment.

Some time after the events 'RED,' we pick up with Frank (Willis), happily shacked up with his girlfriend Sarah (Mary Louise Parker). He wants to be a homemaker, fixing up their place and cooking on the grill. Sarah, having been bitten by the espionage bug, wants action. She gets her chance when the RED team becomes entangled in a thick political conspiracy that puts them in the crosshairs of the C.I.A., MI6, and the KGB. After faking his own death to avoid actual death, Marvin (Malkovich) reunites with his former partner and intrigue begins.

The plot of 'RED 2' is mystery — even after watching it. Like a truck of red herrings and MacGuffins dumping on to the audiences' lap, twists come and go at lighting speed. While investigating "Project Nightshade," a confidential mission exposed by none other than Wikileaks (timely!), Frank, Sarah, and Marvin travel from New Jersey to London to Paris to Russia to London to other places ripe for shootouts and witty banter. Along the way there are secret documents, keys to safety deposit boxes, femme fatales (in the form of the cartoonishly-accented Catherine Zeta-Jones), a lunatic scientist (Anthony Hopkins) harboring essential information, and the ultimate weapon of mass destruction that everyone is clamoring for. It's spy movie 101. If the movie attempted originality, it would run the risk of losing the audience completely.

Characters are the saving grace. 'RED 2' is the rare action movie where the hijinks are more entertaining than the set pieces. Mirren once again delivers as Victoria, a snappy dame with sniper skills that can work a room with charm before clearing it with bullets. As Willis battles his instinct to sloth about (and to be fair, he actually runs, jumps, and kicks ass in 'RED 2,' versus his wooden attempts in 'A Good Day to Die Hard'), Mirren forces him to react. Same goes for Malkovich, who can turn a non sequitur or schmaltzy piece of theme-building (in this movie's case, what relationships are really about) into comedic gold. He has Jim Carrey instincts coupled with Shakespearean gravitas. Parisot, being no stranger to action comedy, has the eyes and ears that keep the movie bouncing from personality to personality, all at the right tempo.

There are clunky elements that feel taped on for mass marketing's sake. The villains are nonexistent. Like the plot, it's hard to tell the bad guys from the good guys. Neal McDonough squints and yells and tries to shoot Frank in the head, so he's a likely candidate. Byung-hun Lee's Han, a former RED turned gun-for-hire, serves little purpose, called upon when 'Red 2' is in need of a martial arts fight scene. There traces of a dynamic character towards the end of the film, but he so rarely crosses paths with Frank and the rest of the gang that it barely registers.

Like the original, 'RED 2' is a serviceable piece of action filmmaking. The addition of Parisot gives it a better sense of humor, although shoddy special effects turn the larger set pieces into jokes of their own. Not every moment can have Mirren working her magic. The movie balances itself into mediocrity. For every inspired scene — Mary Louise Parker's kissing-as-interrogation tactics are the type of gag that shouldn't work but does — 'RED 2' will stoop to the lowest of lowbrow. There is an extended toilet explosion scene featuring a solid piece of poo that I can't imagine ever shaking from my nightmares. 'RED 2' may not demand attention like the summer's surrounding blockbusters, but there are enough laughs and thrills to, at the very least, hold it for two hours.


'RED 2' opens in theaters on July 19.

Matt Patches is a writer and reporter whose work has been featured on New York Magazine's Vulture, Time Out New York, Film.com, and Hollywood.com. He is the host of the pop culture podcast Operation Kino.

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