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. And he's the one who gives her guns.
Frank is incredulous. 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 "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. "Codgers make the coolest killers" was its motto.
And if anything, this "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" sequel ups the ante. There's a new acronym -- "ICE: Incarcerated, Cannot Execute." They've replaced killed-off Oscar winners with Anthony Hopkins as an addled old scientist and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a Russian agent and one-time lady love of Frank's.
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 hitmen -- played by Neal McDonough ("The Guardian") and Korean actor and martial arts star Byung-hun Lee ("I Saw the Devil," "G. I. Joe: Retaliation") -- 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 droller-than-droll MI6 assassin, Brian Cox reprises his Russian spy boss. And David Thewlis shows up as a sadistic spy and snooty wine lover.
Some bit players are bland, but the difference between Willis in the more recent "Die Hards" and here is that of an exhausted old man forced to repeat himself and carry a movie, versus a lark where he gives action cred to supporting players who do the heavy, funny lifting.
It's a movie of hilarious reaction shots -- little moments where the mere expression on Parker, Mirren, Hopkins or Malkovich's face sells the gag -- and scores and more scores of jokes. 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. Moments after an epic brawl ends, Byung-hun Lee's Han-the-Hitmanlimps away, and for effect gives a vigorous shake of the leg that early in the fight we saw take a vicious whack from a fire extinguisher.
The car chases are played for exciting laughs. Sarah dives into an ancient French Citroen 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.
It's all ground we've sort of covered before and 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.
"Yeah, we could've done a Bond film," they seem to wink. "And it would've been a bloody fun one, at that."
"Red 2" is rated PG-13 for pervasive action and violence including frenetic gunplay, and for some language and drug material.