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Josh Reviews Kick-Ass 2

September 2nd, 2013
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The first Kick-Ass film was something of a minor miracle.  It’s hard to believe it actually exists.  (Click here for my original review.)  That anybody ever thought Mark Millar & John Romita’s profane, hyper-violent riff on super-heroes was suitable source material for a movie sort of boggles my mind.  That the movie actually got made is incredible.  And that it managed to be so damn GOOD — filled with tremendous performances by a hugely talented cast (including big names like Nic Cage and Mark Strong and break-out roles for newcomers Aaron Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz) — is positively astounding.

So just the existence of the first film is amazing.  When they announced a sequel, I could hardly believe it.  As news started to break of the great actors they were adding to the ensemble — including Jim Carrey — my excitement grew.

I’m bummed, then, to report that Kick-Ass 2 is a dud.  There is some fun to be had, but for the most part the film wastes one opportunity after another.

The first Kick-Ass was centered on the question: why has no one ever tried to actually be a super-hero?  Why do people want to be Michael Jordan or Paris Hilton, but not Spider-Man?  Young Dave Lizewski, a lonely kid, decides to become a super-hero, and immediately finds himself embroiled in a world of craziness.  Kick-Ass 2 picks up soon after the end of the first film.  Kick-Ass’ take-down of the D’Amico crime family has prompted a wave of imitators, and soon Kick-Ass finds himself part of a real-life super-hero team, led by a former mob enforcer calling himself Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey).  Unfortunately, Kick-Ass has also inspired a number of people to become super-villains, including his former friend, the now orphaned Chris D’Amico (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse).  Trouble ensues.

Tone is a tricky thing.  It’s an elusive quality that can make or break a film.  The first Kick-Ass was in some respects a parody of comic-book super-hero conventions, but it also was a super-hero movie intended to excite an audience the way they best super-hero films can.  The movie was comedic, but not a spoof. There was intense, high-octane action and real character arcs.  It was a fun, goofy movie, but also one where the peril and stakes felt real for the main characters.

Sadly, the biggest problem with Kick-Ass 2 is that it totally fails to find that tone that worked so well in the first film, that balance between comedy and compelling action and drama.  One approach I could have imagined the sequel to have taken — particularly with the addition of Jim Carrey to the ensemble — would be to double-down on the comedy, to mine the lunacy of people dressing up as super-heroes for a lot of laughs.  Or, the alternative in my mind would have been to dig deeper into the darkness of the concept, and really explore the chaos that could emerge with this new fad of super-hero vigilantism, and the terrible things that could happen to these good-hearted ordinary people when they started sticking their necks into big bad organized crime.  (The latter is the path taken by the comic-book sequels, the mini-series Kick-Ass 2 and Hit Girl, upon which this film is based.  More on that in a moment.)

Unfortunately, Kick-Ass 2 doesn’t commit to either of those directions, striking a weirdly unsatisfying middle ground.  There are not very many laughs in the film, so I can’t really call the movie a comedy.  On the other hand, the film never succeeded for me as a drama.  I didn’t find any of the character-arcs to be all that engaging.  I just didn’t much care about any of the story-lines given to our heroes.  Now did the film succeed as an action movie.  There are some action sequences but I didn’t find any of them to be all that interesting or intense.  (The van-chase in the third act could be one of the least-convincing, worst special-effects-ridden excuses for an action sequence I have seen in a movie in years.)

The comic source material mined much of its power from its transgressive nature.  And I’m not just talking about the violence or vile language, although there was a lot of that.  As an example of the comic’s glee in diving deep into eyebrow-raising territory, Chris D’Amico (the son-of-a-mobster who, in the first Kick-Ass comic and film, morphed from a wanna-be super-hero calling himself Red Mist into a villain) declares himself to be a super-villain, calling himself the Mother-Fucker, and forms a super-villain team called, well, I don’t even think I should type it here.  But the central idea behind the comic-book mini-series Kick-Ass 2 was that, while Kick-Ass and Hit Girl considered themselves triumphant at the end of the first series, they were unwittingly calling a huge helping of trouble down around their heads.  They have made themselves targets, and the comic explores the consequences of that.  Terrible, horrible things happen to the family and friends of Kick-Ass and Hit Girl, and the series is intriguingly ambivalent as to whether their being super-heroes is a good idea.

Had the film sequel decided to jettison the comedy to explore that idea, I think Kick-Ass 2 could have been a really powerful film, one that would have explored territory that most other super-hero films avoid.  But while the film does contain many of the plot-points of the comic-book (including what happens to Colonel Stars and Stripes, the fate of Kick-Ass’ father, and the violent attack on his girlfriend), I found them to be missing much emotional intensity.  When Hit-Girl’s father and mentor was killed in the first film, it was an excruciatingly painful moment.  (So excruciating, in fact, that I remember thinking at the time it might have been a step too far, since the film to that point had been so much fun.)  But it was unquestioningly a gut-punch moment for the audience.  There are a number of moments in Kick-Ass 2 that should have that same effect.  In many ways, the film should be one gut-punch after another, really pushing the heroes into a corner and forcing them to choose whether they really can be public heroes.  But the film fails to do that.  I just didn’t find myself caring that much about any of the characters, which is a real shame.

The best part of the film, for me, was the big super-hero/super-villain brawn at the end.  That was the only time I felt the movie really embraced the craziness of this idea of people actually dressing up as super-heroes and super-villains.  (Actually, I think this moment played even better than it did in the comic, where I felt it was a little anti-climactic.)

There certainly is other fun to be had in the film.  There are some terrific new members of the ensemble.  Scrubs’ Donald Faison is phenomenal as the new super-hero Dr. Gravity.  (He’s a minor character from the comic, delightfully embellished in the film.)  But the best part of the movie is Jim Carrey’s amazing work as Colonel Stars and Stripes.  Under a wonderful make-up job, Mr. Carrey is a riot as the gruff, tough born-again Christian former mob enforcer turned super-hero.  It’s a hugely unique, iconic character, and Mr. Carrey knocks it out of the park.  A perfect combination of actor and role.  I loved every moment Mr. Carrey was on-screen.

I was pleased to see Clark Duke (who was heavily featured in the last season of The Office) back as Dave’s buddy Marty, and I was glad that one of my favorite scenes from the comic made it into the film — the moment when Kick-Ass recognizes that his friend has also started dressing up as a super-hero.

I was bummed that Dave’s girlfriend Katie Deauxma was almost totally absent from the film.  The first movie made Katie a much bigger part of the story than the original comic, which I liked.  Katie was disappointingly almost entirely absent from the comic-book sequel, but I was expecting the film version to change that since she was so heavily featured in the first film. Nope, she’s just in one scene.  (And interestingly, the most controversial scene from the comic — in which Katie is attacked by Chris D’Amico and his super-villain pals — is in the film transferred to a different female character, a super-heroine on Kick-Ass and Col. Stars and Stripes’ super-hero team.  That change works fine in the film, though I would have preferred to have seen Katie be more of a factor in the story.  On the subject of that particular controversial scene, though, I couldn’t believe the obscene line from the comic that Chris says to her during the attack made it into the film.  Wow!  Also, I liked the filmmakers’ way of getting around the suggestion of sexual assault inherent in the scene from the comic.  This is one instance where I think it was the right choice for the film NOT to go in the transgressive direction of the source material.)

I haven’t talked that much about Aaron Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz in the lead roles as Dave (Kick-Ass) and Mindy (Hit-Girl).  They’re both fine, though I think the magic from the first film was missing from both of their performances.  It doesn’t help that they both, now, look a little too old (and Aaron Johnson looked WAY TOO BUFF!!) for their roles.  I think the bigger problem was that neither of their character arcs were as interesting as in the first film.  I wanted to feel both of their struggles as to whether or not to carry on as super-heroes far more deeply than I actually did.  I needed Mindy to have more of a reason to give-up being Hit-Girl, rather than just to honor the wishes of her new adoptive father who we only saw for five minutes in the first film.  And Kick-Ass’ rejection of his super-hero identity doesn’t come until very late in the film and only lasts about five minutes.

Sigh.  I really wanted this film to be good.  I wanted the sequel to be bigger and funnier and crazier than the first film, but instead it’s like everything is just a little less interesting.  Oh well.  Swing and a miss.

(It is pretty cool, though, that Jim Carrey’s performance as Colonel Stars and Stripes actually exists on film!  The biggest redeeming feature of Kick-Ass 2.)

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