4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“What happens in the Kremlin stays in the Kremlin” — RED 2

RED was a big hit in 2010, so much so that Jon & Erich Hoeber were commissioned to pen a sequel to the Warren Ellis/Cully Hamner comic in January of 2011.

RED 2 was finally released in the summer of 2013, at this point bearing no actual resemblance to the original comic book, instead doubling down on the big action of the first movie.

While the Hoebers returned to script, Robert Schwentke declined to come back, choosing to do a different comic book project, R.I.P.D. instead. (Amusingly, both movies starred Mary-Louise Parker.) Instead, Dean Parisot, probably best known in genre circles for directing Galaxy Quest, took the directorial reins.

Most of the surviving cast from the first movie is back for this: Bruce Willis as Frank, Parker as Sarah, John Malkovich as Marvin, Helen Mirren as Victoria, and Brian Cox as Ivan. New for this movie are Neal McDonough (last seen in this rewatch in Captain America: The First Avenger) as Horton, who pretty much has the same bad-ass antagonist role that Karl Urban had in the first movie; Byung-hun Lee as Han, an assassin with a grudge against Frank; Catherine Zeta-Jones as Katja, the Russian agent who seduced Frank in the past, mentioned during the conversation in the first movie between Frank and Ivan; David Thewlis (last seen in this rewatch in Wonder Woman) as the information broker known as The Frog; and Sir Anthony Hopkins (last seen in this rewatch in Thor and Thor: The Dark World) as an actual mad scientist.

The movie was nowhere near the success of the first one. RED 2 cost $30 million more to make than RED, but it made $50 million less than the first one. That’s not good math, and while the Hoebers were hired in 2013 to write a third movie before this second one came out, there’s been no movement on it, nor on the TV series that NBC announced they were developing in 2015.


“I knew she would play him like a banjo at an Ozark hoedown”

Written by Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber
Directed by Dean Parisot
Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Mark Varhaidan
Original release date: July 19, 2013

Screenshot: Summit Entertainment

Frank and Sarah are shopping at CostCo. Frank is really enjoying trying to be normal, buying a power-washer and preferring to stay in and cook rather than go out to eat. It’s obvious to everyone except Frank that Sarah is miserable, and that she misses the excitement of Frank’s old life. Marvin shows up at CostCo to warn him that bad things are going down, but Frank doesn’t want to hear it.

In the parking lot, Marvin’s car blows up. Frank is worried about going to the funeral, partly because it’s dangerous, mainly because he doesn’t think Marvin’s really dead. After the sparsely attended funeral, Frank is taken into custody by federal agents who bring him to a Yankee White Site to question him about something called Nightshade.

A black-ops mercenary named Horton who works for the U.S. government shows up at the facility and kills pretty much everyone while trying to get at Frank. He also wants to know about Nightshade, but is less polite about it than the feds. He threatens to torture Sarah until Frank talks. Frank, however, takes out most of the soldiers-for-hire accompanying Horton, and at the last minute is aided in his escape by the not-really-dead Marvin.

Horton is working for a government operative who apparently is sufficiently corrupt to sanction an operation that kills a building full of federal agents, and who also orders Horton to kill a general who was also involved in Nightshade who talks about going public.

Marvin explains that someone leaked documents about Nightshade, which was apparently a covert mission to sneak a nuclear bomb into the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Marvin and Frank were the bodyguards for the head scientist on that project, Dr. Edward Bailey—but he died in a car crash.

Horton hires a Korean assassin named Han Cho Bai to kill Frank, Marvin, and Sarah, who have now been declared domestic terrorists, as Horton has framed them for the deaths at the Yankee White Site. Han has a grudge against Frank, who put him in prison years ago.

Marvin traces the leak to Paris, so they trick Han into going to a hotel room thinking that they’re there, and instead steal his private plane and take it to Paris, where they track down The Frog, an information dealer. Before they can confront The Frog, however, they are ambushed by Major General Katja Petrokovich. Katja and Frank have history, which is demonstrated by her passionately kissing Frank, to Sarah’s horror.

With Katja’s help—to Sarah’s disgust—they capture The Frog and interrogate him but while Frank, Marvin, and Katja’s torture doesn’t have any effect, Sarah is able to seduce him and get the information they need, including the key to a safety deposit box.

Victoria calls Frank to inform him that she’s been contracted by MI6 to kill Frank, Marvin, and Sarah. The fact that she called first means that she probably won’t actually kill them.

Frank is about to take Sarah to dinner in Paris, and also is given The Frog’s key by Marvin. Before they can go, Katja says she needs to talk to Frank to speak to an informant, but that turns out to be a ruse. She drugs Frank and takes the key. Sarah is livid that he could be so stupid, but Marvin reassures them both that Frank didn’t have The Frog’s key—Marvin gave Frank a different key because he knew Frank wouldn’t be thinking straight around Katja. Sarah goes revenge shopping and then Han shows up. He wants his plane back, and to that end, he ambushes Marvin and Frank with a very large gun. They barely manage to escape through the sewers.

Katja is arrested by French police for trying to steal stuff from a safety deposit box. Frank, Marvin, and Sarah go into The Frog’s box with their actual proper key and discover that Bailey is alive and in a secure MI6 facility. They head to London in Han’s plane, where they’re met by Victoria—who, it turns out, was warned by Marvin that they were coming, though he wasn’t sure if she’d kill them or not.

She fakes their deaths, which buys them maybe 24 hours, and head to the MI6 facility, where they break Bailey out, though Victoria lets herself be captured to facilitate their escape. Bailey is more than a little scattered, thanks to the drugs they have him on, but he thinks he can locate the bomb he hid in Moscow.

Ivan helps them get into Moscow, and they go to a safe house that Frank hasn’t actually used since 1984–and it hasn’t been touched in all that time. Bailey leads them to where he put the bomb: the Kremlin, which he says is the last place they’d look. Frank is confused as to how they never noticed the nuclear signature.

Using a tunnel that was used to bring Stalin’s mistress in and out of the Kremlin—which is now located adjacent to the bathroom of a Papa John’s—they break into the Kremlin. They find the bomb, which turns out to be powered by red mercury, which is undetectable. Bailey is enough of a genius to have made it work where nobody else had. Katja discovers they’re in the Kremlin, but Frank convinces her to help get the bomb out of Russia.

They return to Frank’s safe house, but then Victoria calls. She was captured by MI6 and interrogated, then left for dead. However, Victoria takes out the agent assigned to kill her and escapes and then calls Frank to inform him that they didn’t imprison Bailey to hide the existence of Nightshade, but because Bailey wanted to actually use Nightshade.

Bailey pulls a gun on Frank and everyone else, and then Horton shows up. Bailey called Horton and offered him Nightshade. Bailey shoots Katja and leaves with Horton and the bomb. Russian police arrest Frank, Marvin, and Sarah for Katja’s murder and put them before a firing squad—however, they’re rescued by Victoria and Ivan.

Horton puts Bailey in cuffs and takes him prisoner, assuring him that what he went through in the MI6 facility for thirty-two years is as nothing compared to what he’ll go through in U.S. custody. “Didn’t see that coming, did you?” Horton says, and Bailey admits he didn’t as he’s placed in a cell on the plane.

However, in midair Bailey pulls two vials out of a secret compartment in the heel of his shoe. One has an antidote, which he gives to himself, before breaking open the other one, which contains a deadly nerve gas. His guard dies from the gas, and Bailey grabs the keys off him to get out. He gives Horton the antidote also so he can observe how badly he screwed up. Before slugging him unconscious, Bailey says, “Didn’t see that coming, did you?”

Han tracks down Frank and confronts him at the airfield in Moscow, but Frank manages to convince him to help stop Bailey before he kills millions. Han reluctantly agrees, but doesn’t take killing Frank off the table for later.

Bailey is selling the bomb to the Iranians, making the deal at the Iranian embassy in London, with Horton as his hostage/witness. Frank, Sarah, Marvin, Han, and Victoria contrive to break into the embassy—Sarah seduces the ambassador, Marvin shows up as a defector then puts a bomb in the toilet, which causes plumbers to be called, whom Frank and Han go in as—but by the time they get to where the transaction is taking place, they find three dead Iranians, Horton’s dead body, the bomb set to go off, and Bailey nowhere to be found.

Turns out Bailey doesn’t want to sell the bomb to the Iranians—though he does take their money—he just wants to blow everything up out of revenge for his family being killed and himself being imprisoned.

Bailey takes Sarah hostage and gets away. Han and Victoria steal a sports car and Frank and Marvin steal a helicopter and they follow, while being pursued by Iranian soldiers.

Sarah drives Bailey to the airfield where Han’s plane is. Frank boards the plane with Nightshade. Bailey gives Sarah back after Frank gives up his gun. Bailey then takes off—but Frank snuck the actual bomb onto the plane and it explodes in midair. Han is pissed, and tells Frank he wants $50 million from him—$20 for not killing him (that’s what Horton paid him for the assassination gig) and $30 million for a new plane.

Frank, realizing that Sarah is happier in danger than she is being a safe regular member of society who shops at CostCo, decides to accept a job in Caracas…


“This doesn’t mean I’m not going to kill you later”

Screenshot: Summit Entertainment

This movie is a lot of fun to watch in the moment, but it doesn’t really hang together. While the Hoebers provide us with some hilarious lines, the story doesn’t entirely work. It feels too much like it’s trying to check the same boxes that the first one did—Horton casually conversing while killing someone just like Karl Urban did, Helen Mirren firing a big-ass gun just like she did last time, Bruce Willis jumping into a rotating car just like he did last time except he jumped out then, etc.—but everything’s escalated.

The script doesn’t really know how to tie off its threads, either. Katja is introduced, there’s some hilarious love-triangle stuff happening among Frank, Katja, and Sarah, and then—nothing. Bailey shoots Katja, Frank looks constipated, Sarah looks horrified, and then the rest of the movie carries on as if Katja never existed. For someone whose presence informed so much of the movie up until that, she’s just then killed without fanfare.

Far worse is Horton, who is set up as the exact type of bad-ass operative that Karl Urban’s Cooper was in the first movie—and it’s the perfect role for Neal McDonough’s hard-faced deadpan—but then he’s taken out in half a second by Bailey. This violates the Second Rule of Bad-Assness: a bad-ass must be stopped in an appropriately bad-ass manner. (The First Rule is that a bad-ass can only be defeated by an equal or greater bad-ass. That rule, at least, is not violated, because Bailey proves to be a worthy adversary. It’s the method that falls down.) Worse, Horton is inexplicably spared by Bailey on the plane, so you figure the former will either get his revenge or be taken out in a huge manner—but no, Bailey later just stabs him, making you wonder why he kept him alive in the first place, beyond McDonough being in the opening credits, and therefore more important.

Then again, it didn’t make any sense that Horton was willing to kill an entire building full of federal agents, but not willing to kill Frank, Marvin, and Sarah at the safe house, just leaving them to be captured by Russian authorities.

Most of this would be forgivable if the rest of the movie was fun and the performances were good, and most of it is, with one glaring exception: Bruce Willis. Where in RED he did an excellent job playing a dangerous operative trying to be normal, here he seems to be phoning it in. He has moments here and there, but he mostly seems to be checking his watch waiting for the scene to be over, utterly failing to portray the character he did so well with three years earlier.

At least the rest of the cast is up to snuff. McDonough, as I said, was pretty much born to play Horton. Mary-Louise Parker and John Malkovich are a delight, both obviously having a grand old time (which makes Willis’s leaden performance even worse, since the three of them spend most of the movie together, and Willis’s somnabulence stands out like a sore thumb). Helen Mirren is her usual magnificent self (I especially loved her calmly dissolving two bodies in acid in a hotel-room tub while talking on the phone to Frank), as is Brian Cox in a too-small turn as Ivan. Catherine Zeta-Jones vamps nicely as Katja, though I never really bought her as a Russian general. She was great as the dusky femme fatale, but when they tried to show her in the Kremlin, she looked more like someone cosplaying a Russian general than an actual Russian general. Byung-hun Lee is fine, but his role feels superfluous—you could remove him from the movie, and it wouldn’t change anything. Honestly, that’s true of Katja as well—both of them are complications from Frank’s past that don’t feel warranted or necessary, though, again, Willis sleepwalking through the movie aids in keeping these two ghosts from his past from landing as well as intended.

The movie is entirely stolen, however, by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who is masterful both as the scattered crazy Bailey, then utterly convincing in his switch to the psychopath master planner that he’s actually been all along. It’s a bravura performance, especially since it’s easy to believe that he will spend the entire movie playing this daffy affable old professor, so it’s a genuine surprise when he turns out to be the mastermind behind everything.

Still, the movie overall is a flat sequel, overstuffed, over-referencing of its predecessor, and absent a good chunk of the charm, not aided by a dreadful performance from the lead.


Next week, we go from action-adventure to high fantasy, as we look at two interpretations of the classic Arthurian comic strip Prince Valiant.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is an author guest at GalaxyCon Raleigh this weekend at the Raleigh Convention Center. He’ll be spending most of his time at Bard’s Tower, Booth 601, selling and signing books, and hell also be doing four panels. His full panel schedule can be found here.


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