Kick-Ass 2 Dir. Jeff Wadlow

[Universal Pictures; 2013]

Styles: action, comedy, comic book adaptation
Others: Kick-Ass, The Watchmen, Blankman, Super

Kick-Ass 2 is a comic book adaptation with an identity crisis. On one hand, it strives for a critique of the superhero genre: there is more realism than what’s typically found in comic book movies, and the plot revolves entirely around the practical consequences of violence. But for all its posturing, the sequel wallows in the ugliest tropes of the genre, whether it’s gleeful violence or a hero who’s forced to reconsider his or her moral authority. Stuck between bloody histrionics and pitch-black satire, this is the rare sequel where bigger might have been better.

Things have been quiet since Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) killed the father of Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) with a bazooka. Kick-Ass is a senior at high school now, and he asks to join forces with Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is still a one-woman death squad. Hit-Girl ditches school in favor of training, all in honor of her deceased father, but once her guardian (Morris Chestnut) figures her out her plan, she swears she’ll abandon the superhero persona in pursuit of a normal life. Kick-Ass, on the other hand, joins forces with a group of superheroes led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey). They get the attention of Red Mist, who has abandoned his good-guy moniker. Now he goes by The Motherfucker, and since he’s hell-bent on revenge, his mission is to amass an army of fellow villains. The Motherfucker and the Colonel escalate their war until there’s a serious body count, and Hit-Girl has no choice but rejoin the fray.

The surprising thing about Kick-Ass 2 is how writer/director Jeff Wadlow sometimes holds back the violence. Aside from the occasional strike with a baseball bat, the lengthy middle section is all about character-building. Kick-Ass is the least interesting of the principles: the character is mostly reactive, and Wadlow relies on him to be the butt of physical humor (Hit-Girl shoots him in the back with a giant pistol, but don’t worry, he’s wearing a bullet-proof vest). As with Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl is far more intriguing. The screenplay directly acknowledges that she was brainwashed by her father, and there is some pathos when she tries to blend in with her peers. The payoff for this sub-plot is similar to the Carrie remake, also starring Moretz, except here her revenge is more scatological.

But as with all comic book adaptations, the movie is only as good as its villain, and there are disturbing dimension to Mintz-Plasse’s turn as The Motherfucker. He’s mostly an entitled, ill-tempered weeny, yet the screenplay pushes the boundaries of decency by asking what might happen when an entitled shithead has unlimited resources and real authority. He’s like Batman in reverse: absent of any code, he finds gleeful joy in murder. Mintz-Plasse’s performance is mostly funny — his self-conscious way of saying “motherfucker” is weirdly Oedipal — and the comic persona turns disturbing when Wadlow has the character do some truly heinous shit.

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl constantly wonder whether they’re defined by their actions or their masks. This particular existential crisis is common to comic book movies — every major superhero feels fundamental doubt — but Kick-Ass 2 runs into problems because a serious exploration no longer interests Wadlow. He uses the crisis as a plot device and nothing else; when Kick-Ass or the others decide to abandon their costumes, the sole purpose is to create superficial suspense about when they’ll put it on again.

It’s inevitable that Kick-Ass and The Motherfucker have a final showdown, but when it finally happens it’s not entirely suspenseful — like Kick-Ass, the action grows more cartoonish as the movie continues — although it’s well-shot. Violence serves as punch-line here, and there are sequences in which Hit-Girl’s martial arts are darkly hilarious. Still, the consequence of Wadlow’s uneven screenplay is that it creates the final impression that action only serves as entertainment, even when he goes through the motions of something deeper. Hit-Girl is not bad influence for young women, nor is Kick-Ass a bad influence for young men. Instead, they’re just the consequences of lazy writing.

Jim Carrey caused a minor controversy a few months ago when he announced he wouldn’t do any PR work for Kick-Ass 2. This is ironic on several levels: this is a rated-R movie, so it’s primarily intended for adults, and the entire premise of the Kick-Ass universe (for better or worse) is that violence has real-world consequences. As far as its “level of violence,” Kick-Ass 2 is subdued with its languid middle section, and Carrey’s scenes are exactly as gruesome as what is in the trailers. It’s a shame, really, since Carrey steals the show with his nervy, physical performance. He’s tilted the conversation toward whether movies are too violent nowadays, when the real discussion should be whether good movies justify — in whatever kind of way — their use of violence. This one doesn’t.

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