July 19--Action. Starring Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Mary-Louise Parker. Directed by Dean Parisot. (PG-13. 116 minutes.)
About halfway through "Red 2," in the midst of all the laughs and action, suddenly Anthony Hopkins shows up, and he doesn't care one bit that nobody is going to notice his acting in a movie like this. He's going for the Oscar anyway.
As a scientist who has been locked up by an intelligence agency for 31 years -- he was such a genius at creating bombs he was deemed too dangerous to be let loose -- Hopkins plays several varieties of nut simultaneously. A jovial nut. A scary nut. A nut who thinks he's only pretending to be nuts, etc.
But here's the beautiful thing: Sometimes if you take a genuinely great actor and put him in an outlandish role, he'll make psychological sense of that role while in no way reining in the crazy. Give him something big, and he'll give you something great. This is what Hopkins does in "Red 2."
The movie is what you might expect. Like every other cinematic extravaganza these days, it's a light entertainment about the threat of annihilation -- fine on its own terms, and Hopkins is just one actor in it. Yet what an unexpected find, a performance that shows the invention, playfulness and quickness of mind that we associate with this actor at his best.
As in 2010's "Red," the sequel is about old CIA agents who find that, every time they think they're out, something pulls them back in. In this case, it's a secret from the past: A top-secret operation that went disastrously wrong in 1979 looks as though it soon might be exposed.
Even worse, there are people so intent on keeping it secret that they're willing to kill everyone ever connected with the mission, and among these are -- no surprise -- Bruce Willis and John Malkovich as Frank and Marvin, respectively, best friends and CIA partners for decades.
As the movie starts, Frank is retired and settling into domesticity with his corn-fed Kansas girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), and their screen relationship is a fun component of the movie: He wants to settle down, but she wants action.
Willis is the anchor of the film, the effortless leading man, the guy we're so willing to watch that we almost take him for granted, so easy is his command of the medium. And Parker is a big part of the movie's fun, playing Sarah as instinctive and clueless and yet always watching and thinking.
"Red 2" maintains a tone throughout that allows for the possibility of truly horrible things happening. There's violence and death at every turn, and the threat of something worse -- something nuclear -- gives the movie urgency. At the same time, there's a light quality about it, not cartoony, but of a comedy grounded in character, and the weird combination somehow works: This is a likable, almost gentle comedy and also a violent action film about the possibility of a nuclear bomb going off in a major city.
The movie has odd turns and surprises and always keeps moving, except at one point when the story hits a snag. It comes about an hour in, when the good guys and the despised bad guys both find themselves working on the same side, only they don't know it. This state of affairs goes on for only about 10 or 15 minutes (until a new villain emerges), but in that time the air goes out of the balloon. "Red 2" does regain its footing, but that's a major flaw in the design.
Malkovich is the comedian to Willis' straight man and has some of the best lines. Catherine Zeta-Jones shows up playing a Russian agent, looking even more stunning than she did at age 22, which, for the record, was 21 years ago. So between Hopkins and Zeta-Jones, "Red 2" is a very good movie for the Welsh.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @MickLaSalle
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