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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review: Kick-Ass 2

It hardly feels like it was three years ago that the first Kick-Ass film was released, but time does have a tendency to fly.  Released at a time when the superhero genre was starting to put a bit of a strain on movie goers (some would argue this is still the case), Kick-Ass, much like its comic book counterpart, was a nice change of pace that took a different perspective on the genre.  The film looked to show what it would be like if one of these nerds who packed midnight releases of superhero films and lurked around comic shops on a weekly basis decided to become their own superhero.  In short, it was a fun ride and featured one of the best performances by Nicolas Cage in years.  Flash forward three years and we are now getting Kick-Ass 2, under the direction of Jeff Wadlow instead of Matthew Vaughn.  Much like the comic it's based on, the film came with its own set of controversies, leaving one to wonder if perhaps the fun satire of the superhero film that was Kick-Ass was only meant to be a one hit wonder.

Picking up two years after the first film, Kick-Ass 2 puts the focus on both nerd-turned superhero Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) as well as now retired superhero Mindy Macready (Chloe Moretz).  In the wake of his actions as Kick-Ass, a lot of people have begun donning masks to join in on the fun, as Dave finds when he joins new superhero team Justice Forever.  Mindy, forced into retirement by her guardian, must find a way to be a regular teenager, while resisting the urge to continue being Hit Girl.  Meanwhile, an angry Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) decides his days as Red Mist are over, forming a group of super villains to take on Kick-Ass and his hero friends.

Since there is, sadly, so much that this film gets wrong, perhaps it is best to begin by discussing the things which this film actually does get right.  Unfortunately, most of these aspects take place within the film's first act, arguably the one time in the movie where it actually feels something like a sequel to the first film.  In particular, the scenes where Kick-Ass joins Justice Forever, as well as their ensuing forays into the life of superheroes are when this film most closely reaches the "what if" theme of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  These are scenes which are led by an extraordinary performance by Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars and Stripes.  We get to see what inspired other people to become everyday superheroes, and they are reasons which feel more varied and justified than Dave's simplistic wondering of if it could be done at all.  The members of Justice Forever, while not very fleshed out, feel like natural extensions of many of the ideas brought forth in Kick-Ass, making them easily the more engaging characters of the film.  A fight scene which pits Justice Forever against a Chinese mob, perhaps the best action sequence of the entire movie, is the epitome of where this movie's strengths lie, and is really the only moment in the film where the audience can comfortably let go and enjoy themselves.

From that one good aspect, this film then devolves into a number of issues which would take far too long to lay out in just one review.  For starters, Kick-Ass 2 is a narrative mess; a schizophrenic film that cannot decide what it wants to be.  On one side, we have Hit Girl's story, which receives entirely too much focus.  While it is understandable that writer/director Jeff Wadlow wanted to bring in elements of the Hit Girl spin-off comic, there is the one major issue that it is a story which is not very good.  Hit Girl and Big Daddy worked as characters due to the brevity of their appearances.  Mindy's struggle with whether to be a teenager or a superhero feels in line with the film's overall thematic journey, but so many of her story's narrative beats feel like a bad rip-off of Mean Girls.  As a result, all of these scenes drag as the viewer becomes impatient for the real story to continue.  On the other hand, we have the plot that more closely follows the Kick-Ass 2 comic, in other words, all of the superhero stuff.  Even this plot cannot succeed, however, as, aforementioned moments aside, it all feels like a completely joyless affair that is barely a shadow of what worked in the first film.  Suspension of disbelief is threatened as we are treated to several shots of Aaron Johnson's abs, leading one to wonder if Jeff Wadlow forgot this is supposed to be about a scawny nerd pretending to be a superhero, not an actual superhero.  The double focus of this film really acts as a hindrance to both stories, causing the pacing to feel completely off.  Perhaps if Mindy's arc had been largely abandoned, more focus could have been put into improving the lackluster superhero story.

Much of the criticism about this film has been for the misogyny and violence, and they are worthwhile avenues as they are where this film really falls apart.  Not only does Mindy's storyline mostly come off as a boring affair that Tina Fey wrote better 9 years ago, but it seeks to objectify its teenage female characters at every moment.  This misogyny trickles over into the main plot as well.  Although a controversial rape scene from the comic is avoided in the film, there is a strong implication made by Mintz-Plasse's character that rape is less evil than killing a dog.  It is an insulting idea that comes in so subtly that, unfortunately, many moviegoers may miss it.  Violence has always been a big part of the formula of what makes Kick-Ass what it is, but it feels much less cartoonish here.  Sure, there are some moments in the movie where the violence is so heavily stylized and over the top that it could be considered more in the style of Kick-Ass, but this is a movie that seems more concerned with being as gritty as the superhero films it is intended to mock than a parody of comic book violence.  It is an "artistic" endeavor which does not pay off very well as the more realistic blood and gore of the first film is replaced with CGI that looks so terribly fake one loses all sense of stakes.  If you are wanting to make your viewers cringe or laugh at the stylized violence your characters are perpetrating, it may be wise to make sure it actually looks like they are attacking a person, not a Pixar character.  CGI blood and other bodily fluids abound, only adding to the shell of a movie Kick-Ass 2 ends up being.

On the casting side of things, Kick-Ass 2 gets more than a few things right, but it is difficult to see any performance in this film as anything other than making the best of a bad situation.  This applies to no one more than Christopher Mintz-Plasse, whose Chris D'Amico is so much a whiny brat that he barely resembles the character he was in the first film.  In these moments, one feels like the actor is just having to plow through a bad script, but, when Mintz-Plasse turns to serious mode, one realizes this just may be both a bad actor and script.  Aaron Johnson is fine as Dave Lizewski when Wadlow actually remembers his character is supposed to be a nerd, but Dave pulls so little focus compared to the first film that one sometimes forgets Johnson is even in this movie.  While her plot may be largely superfluous, Chloe Moretz does the best with what she is given, delivering one of the better performances in the film.  A few standouts are among the superheroes and villains, such as Donald Faison as Doctor Gravity and Olga Kurkulina as Mother Russia,but these are mostly forgettable roles in the long run.  As mentioned, Jim Carrey, like Nicolas Cage before him, gives the most memorable performance in the entire film.  His Colonel Stars and Stripes feels like the most fully realized of the superheroes, despite only getting a bit more focus than them, but Carrey plays him in such a way that you believe he took the time to really forge this character.  

When it comes to comics, Kick-Ass 2 was a joyless ride that only cared about gratuitous violence for the sake of gratuity.  In transition to film, Kick-Ass 2 is a laugh-less, boring journey which utterly forgets what made its predecessor a hit.  When the film is not spending too much time on a needless story, or being an utter train wreck that is insulting to women, Kick-Ass 2 has a few glimmering moments that make one remember why they enjoyed this franchise to begin with.  Unfortunately, the film's bad pacing, gritty violence, and atrocious writing cause one to forget these fleeting moments and sigh, just waiting for this torture to be over.  While the comic of Kick-Ass 3 may be decent so far, we can hope that it never makes its way to the big screen as this pointless sequel does almost nothing to expand upon what made this such an enticing series to begin with.

Grade: D+
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