A funny thing happened on my way to the expected scathing review of Kick-Ass 2, a sequel to the almost impossible to follow up naughty and taboo kickin' Kick-Ass that gave us a geeky wanna be superhero named Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) and a pre-teen female counterpart with sailor's language named Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz).
I enjoyed it. A lot.
To be sure, Kick-Ass 2 doesn't posssess near the shock and awe that did the original film. It simply couldn't have, because now we've seen it all before and the young Moretz is more a rebellious teenager than a precocious and adorably twisted child. What seemed charming in the first film seems more like the actions of a potentially sociopathic teenager who may simply be more mad at the world than wanting to save it.
Writer/director Jeff Wadlow tries way too hard to compensate for the lack of novelty with an abundance of plot threads that are wholly unnecessary and, at times, downright unsatisfying. The appeal of Kick-Ass was its willingness to go balls to the walls with taboo material using characters that were among the more appealing characters in what can be the often stuffy genre of superhero films.
Those who embraced the first film's edginess will likely be disappointed by Wardlow's more mainstream comedy approach that at times more resembles The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai if that film had bothered to have a villain named Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
Kick-Ass 2 still flirts with taboos, but it does so in less subversive and far less surprising ways. While the first film left you mouthing the words "I can't believe they did that" at the screen, this film will leave you more grinning than actually laughing out loud. To call it a bit of a disappointment is a reasonable proclamation, but standing on its own I'll still take it over a good amount of the superhero drivel that has flooded the multiplexes during Summer 2013.
First, there's Aaron Johnson. Seeming only able to act in this film, Johnson is sort of a Tobey Maguire light as Dave, who ended the first film seriously injured after taking down mobster Frank D'Amico with the help of Hit Girl and Big Daddy. and who starts this film trying to resist his impulses to jump back into the game alongside Mindy/Hit Girl. As you may remember, Hit Girl ended the last film with the death of her father (Nicolas Cage) and has now been left in the care of longtime family friend Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut). She's still secretly kicking ass while getting ready to enter high school.
It's not long before Dave has stopped resisting his impulses and is back as Kick-Ass determined to start a superhero team alongside pal Mindy, though it's also not long before Marcus catches on that Mindy hasn't given up her evil fightin' ways and puts an end to it. With role reversal firmly in place, Kick-Ass aligns himself with a rather motley crew of crime fighters headed up by Col. Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), a former mobster turned born-again Christian who seems to have no problem placing the responsibility for vengeance squarely in his own hands.
As is always the case in these superhero films, when one baddie gets knocked out there's a new one ready to take their place and in this case it's the cartoonish son of Frank D'Amico, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), whose evil ways are cartoonish yet demented especially when Wardlow not so creatively wipes his humanity slate clean by eliminating his mother and Javier (John Leguizamo) from the picture. D'Amico, known as Red Mist in the first film, labels himself The Motherfucker and he assembles his own "team" called the Toxic Mega-Cunts that are fueled by one seriously demented Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina).
It's no secret that funnyman Jim Carrey has sworn off publicizing this film after the Newtown massacre that reportedly has left him having second thoughts about the level of violence in this film and, probably even more likely, the light-hearted approach to said violence. Kick-Ass 2 doesn't really amp up the violence until the film's final third, but when it does amp it up it really amps it up in both intensity and tastelessness.
In a way, Carrey's disavowal is disappointing because this is some of his best work in quite some time. One gets the sense that Carrey's appearance here is a seed planting performance should a third Kick Ass film enter the picture. Given Carrey's reluctance and the fairly modest early buzz for the film it seems more than a little unlikely that the film has the potential for a third go-round.
It's probably not surprising that Mintz-Plasse's The Motherfucker sets out to destroy everyone and everything related to Kick-Ass and Hit Girl, though it may be a bit surprising just how mean-spirited these attacks can be. If anything, that's one of the major issues with the film - There are times that Wardlow nails the tone perfectly and there are other times he's all over the place ranging from surprisingly tender to downright vicious. In fact, the film seems particularly vicious when it comes to family members on both sides of the good vs evil equation and it's more than a little jarring to see how it all plays out.
While Johnson is unlikely to ever be accused of being a good actor, his performance as Kick-Ass remains his most appealing to date while still bordering on the bland side of the superhero spectrum. Because of Hit Girl's story arc this time around, he's given a bit more time to shine on his own and for the most part he takes advantage of it including some nice scenes with Justice Forever teammate Night Bitch (an appealing Lindy Booth). As was true in the first film, Hit Girl gets the meatiest material and is still by far given the most complex character development including a seemingly out of place yet enjoyable mean girls rip.
While the whole "mean girls" shtick may seem out of place, it actually really hit me quite powerfully as sort of a breeding ground where evil is allowed to grow. Mobsters aren't born mobsters. Killers aren't born killers. They're born. They're bred. They're even encouraged and it seems more than a little likely that a scenario that feels out of place is actually making a wee bit of a social statement.
Christopher Mintz-Plasse is a solid choice to pull off the normalcy of evil, a kid who grew up around entitled narcissism and has grown into in both normal and demented ways. While one can laugh at his almost Prince-like costuming, Mintz-Plasse gives his most satisfying performance to date by moving away from caricature despite the caricaturish nature of his character.
Try to say that ten times real fast.
On the flip side, John Leguizamo is completely wasted here as Javier. Leguizamo has proven time and again able to pull off both comedy and drama, and it's a shame to seem him saddled with nothing more than a generic sidekick role. Clark Duke and Donald Faison are also for the most part wasted here.
Kick-Ass 2 isn't going to please everyone. In fact, I'd say it's not going to please a good majority of the folks who were pleased by the original Kick-Ass. It's a less subversive and less taboo film with too many plot threads and a tone that can't decide if it wants to be mean-spirited or thoughtful and substantial. That said, Kick-Ass 2 still takes a bit of a demented glee in its goings on and manages to infuse its dialogue and images with thoughts that do provoke and characters who actually do mean something. Wardlow also does a terrific job, though some may lament it, of avoiding some of the source material's more controversial subjects including a "light" rape scene that most likely crosses a line that Hollywood isn't about to cross.
While it doesn't kick as much ass as the original film, Kick-Ass 2 is still a hit.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic