They did not come to improve Red, merely to extend it. And convolute it. They came to bolster the brand and keep that older-and-far-more-reliable-than-14-year-old-boys demographic coming to movie theaters. They also came to drop a token young person into the mix (G.I. Joe franchise regular Byung-hun Lee as the world's most dangerous contract killer) just in case that might lure more of the 14 year olds into showing up. They came to add a lot more idle chatter and a heavier dose of bullet spray.
But the squeamish can relax: this is, like its predecessor, more silly than sanguine, a PG-13 fantasyland of tidy, bloodless death. When a bad guy warns Frank (Bruce Willis), the covert ops man who just wants a chance to remain retired, that his significant other Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) is going to be filleted "from head to toe," it's an easy, empty threat. Nothing bad is going to happen to anyone you like here, ever. And not simply because Helen Mirren's character is standing by, casually, waiting to ruin scores of faceless goons and then slowly dissolve their corpses with chemicals while she wears a fur-lined dressing gown. Not even then. You came to see the late-middle-aged play spy games, not splatter the walls. Mirren is the film's greatest pleasure but she's comedy menace, the sardonically quippy aftermath of violence.
A nuclear bomb is missing. Its creator, a mad professor with a reputation as "The Da Vinci of Death" (Anthony Hopkins), has been in solitary confinement for thirty years. Frank, drawn out of Costco-shopping domesticity by old pal Marvin (John Malkovich), goes on a globe-hopping trip to find it, crossing paths with Lee and a femme fatale from his past (Catherine Zeta-Jones), as well as an information dealer known as "The Frog" (David Thewlis, doing "aesthete" like he was born for it) and a bunch of in-pursuit bad guys that he takes out with effortless precision. Parker comes along for the ride, too, eagerly wanting to fire her own gun yet meeting condescension and a weird stream of "girl" and "kitten" commentary for her trouble. Meanwhile, Malkovich spends his own downtime comically coaching Willis on the nuances of building love and trust in a long-term relationship (apparently thinking of your woman as a helpless kitten is how this is accomplished).
When all of this falls flat -- and that's more often than it should thanks to an overlong running time and slack editing whenever Lee isn't dosing it with a bit of fight-based adrenaline -- there's a recurring visual gag involving hats, a series of them, of increasingly strange color and shape, oddly and uncomfortably propped on the stars' heads. There's Jones in a jaunty plum-colored fedora or a floppy black wide-brimmed thing seemingly designed for attendance at a very chill beach funeral. Parker's hats jealously mimic these. Then Willis gets one with huge furry ear flaps. When everyone winds up in Russia, Malkovich puts on a baseball cap that reads RUSSIA across the front. Returning character Ivan (Brian Cox) is given a purple suede newsboy cap to accompany him while Mirren dons a silvery-white fur head-donut with a tail. Something's wrong when you begin noticing the props. You begin wondering (but not for long) when the Carmen Miranda tutti-frutti tower will show up.
It's all inoffensive, incredibly casual and designed to be so, going for the feel of a goofy '60s international caper comedy but never quite finding that genre's sense of genial, clueless idiocy. If it were cartoonier, weirder, more aggressive and visceral, or simply allowed Helen Mirren the chance to shoot more people while dropping bon mots like a microphone hitting the floor, there'd be more reason for it to exist. But if there's going to be a Red 3, they're going to have to kick it up a notch on every front. Get Maggie Smith and Judi Dench and Ian McKellen in on this action. Set it at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Bring in Max von Sydow as the boss of all evil global crime. Whatever it takes.