They bicker, emotionally blackmail each other, kiss and make up. Because they have history.
But Bruce Willis and John Malkovich aren't the "real" couple at the heart of "Red 2," the action-comedy sequel about retired government assassins. They're just part of a love triangle, one that Mary Louise Parker completes. Her character Sarah may be Frank's (Willis) dizzy but decreasingly naive lady love, but Marvin (Malkovich) is the one who gullibly fills her in on this bloody if exciting life they've led and somehow continue to lead. But as the bullets fly and the plot thickens, once-mild-mannered Sarah gets into the spirit of things entirely too quickly.
"Let's face it, Columbo," she purrs at him. "Things were getting a little stale."
The joy of the first "Red" was seeing a cast packed with Oscar winners (Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine) and very good actors (Malkovich, Parker, Brian Cox and Karl Urban) flesh out and class up a Bruce Willis action film.
And if anything, this "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" sequel ups the ante. They've replaced killed-off Oscar winners with Anthony Hopkins as an addled old scientist and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a Russian agent and onetime lady love of Frank's. And the change in directors to comedy specialist Dean Parisot ("Galaxy Quest") means there's a laugh a minute amid the mayhem.
Somebody's WikiLeaked info about a secret bomb project named "Nightshade" that Frank and Marvin were linked to decades before. Now they need to survive the hit men played by Neal McDonough ("The Guardian") and Korean actor and martial arts star Byung-hun Lee sent to get them. Frank and Marvin also have to find the mad scientist who built the bomb (Hopkins) to clear their names.
Frank drags Sarah along to Paris, Moscow and London as they do. Mirren returns as her droll M16 assassin, and Brian Cox reprises his Russian spy boss. And David Thewlis shows up as a sadistic spy and snooty wine lover.
Malkovich is a laugh riot watch how he pizza-schools a Russian whose Moscow Papa John's they take over while breaking into the Kremlin. The car chases are played for exciting laughs. Sarah dives into an ancient French Citroën deux chevaux and shouts, "I've so got this!" even when she so doesn't. And the fights are both credible and, in the case of the skilled Mr. Lee, incredible.
Things do tend to drag before the too-violent third act turns too bloody.
But "Red 2" goes down easily, from Malkovich's demented moments of relationship advice to Dame Helen's tender and amusing "Hitchcock" reunion with Sir Anthony. There's a knowing twinkle in their eyes, and in everybody else's.
2 1/2 stars
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mary Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Byung-hun Lee, David Thewlis
Director: Dean Parisot
Rated PG-13 (pervasive action and violence including frenetic gunplay, and for some language and drug material)