Sequels are never easy, which makes me wonder why Hollywood always seems to be in such a rush to get to them. I remember when sequels were still relatively uncommon, and the prevailing wisdom was that not every automatically deserved a second part. Just as I believe that filmmakers frequently are surprised by the reasons audiences fall in love with movies, I think they also often emphasize the wrong things when they make sequels, undermining that initial affection in the process.

One of the most direct parallels I can draw to the differences between "RED" and "RED 2" would be by using the model of "Romancing The Stone" and "Jewel Of The Nile." In both cases, the first film is ostensibly an action-comedy, but what really makes it work is the palpable romantic chemistry between the leads. The script for "Romancing The Stone" was written by the great Diane Thomas, who died much too young, and it is a wicked clever read that both mocks the conventions of the romance novels that Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) writes while also playing them straight enough to generate some real heat. When Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner co-wrote the sequel, they needed to find a way to generate friction between Turner's character and Jack Colton, the Michael Douglas character, and it undermines the happily ever after of the first film's ending. That's fine if it ended up working, but instead of rekindling the heat of the first film, it soured the relationship between the two of them, making it all seem like less fun.

"RED 2" has much the same problem. The first film had lots of fun with the old retired spy characters played by Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, and Morgan Freeman, but what drove the film was the very sweet and funny budding romance between Frank (Willis) and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) that developed even as they were on the run and trying not to be killed. In that first movie, Sarah went from being horrified by what Frank did to being turned on by it, and the best moments in "RED 2" play on a sort of "Thin Man" energy. The relationship between Frank and Sarah has started to cool a bit. He loves playing house, but she wants adventure. When a mission falls into their laps, she immediately wants to go, convinced this is what they need. She not only likes watching Frank work, but she wants to play along and be part of things. Parker has become an expert at playing complex reactions to things, showing us all of the various drives that are at work in Sarah even in the midst of mayhem and gunfights. When she cuts loose and throws herself into the spy work, the film is often very funny, and she plays this great sort of carnal joy as she gets to do all sorts of things. What is less successful is when they try to create tension in the relationship in a fairly mechanical way, like introducing Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an old flame and occasional rival of Frank's who is described by Marvin (Malkovich) as "Frank's Kryptonite." It doesn't play that way in the film, and there's never a moment's doubt that Frank wants Sarah. If they focused all their energy on the "adventure as foreplay" side of things, I think "RED 2" would have been stronger.

As it is, the story itself is spy movie blather about some event from the past and a long dead weapons-building genius and a super-weapon hidden somewhere in Moscow, and it feels like there's a lot of exposition required just to get the characters in motion again. There's a price on the heads of both Marvin and Frank, and they have to go into action to sort things out, which leads them back into contact with Victoria (Mirren) while also drawing the attention of creepy NSA bad guy Jack Horton (Neal McDonough) and "the best hired killer alive," Han Cho Bai (Byung-hun Lee). Things blow up, they track down an effete scumbag called The Frog (David Thewlis), they solve the mystery, and they find themselves having to save the world, and all of that legwork is still less interesting than the funny human moments that do work.

I think there is some charm here. Director Dean Parisot also directed the vastly underrated "Galaxy Quest," and his best moments here acknowledge the ludicrous nature of the spy antics while also delivering on the personal side of things. But it feels like they want to actually do the James Bond thing while also poking fun at it, and I'm not sure the film really pulls off that juggling act. The script by Jon and Erich Hoeber is best when it is funny and when the focus is on the returning cast. They never really figure out what to do with Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), the mysterious figure at the heart of the film, and Hopkins looks like he's never cashed an easier check. By far, the best small asides in the film involve Mirren and Cox, and there's a moment where he's watching her as she snipes bad guys that is gleefully, woozily dirty and totally human.

Some iffy composite work in places mars some of the stunt and effects oriented gags, but for the most part, tech credits are solid, and it does try to strike a consistent tone with the first movie. "RED 2" isn't a great sequel, but it also doesn't burn down the series. It's an amiable attempt that serves mostly to remind us of what the first film got right. I'm not sure I'd ever need another sequel, but as long as they've got Parker and Willis, they've at least got my interest.

"RED 2" opens in theaters everywhere today.