Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Punch in the Face: Tiresome "Kick-Ass 2" all bite but less fun


Kick-Ass 2 (2013) 
115 min., rated R.

2010's cleverly cheeky and unapologetically ultra-violent "Kick-Ass" was such a blast. Based on Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s comic series, it deconstructed the superhero ethos with bite and found super-R-rated shock value in then-thirteen-year-old Chloƫ Grace Moretz spouting off four-letter words and slicing off bad guys' limbs. But, as is the case with most sequels, "Kick-Ass 2" really wasn't necessary and, looking back at how fresh and wildly hilarious its predecessor was, a disappointing step down. Original helmer Matthew Vaughn doesn't return, except for a producing credit, but director Jeff Wadlow (2008's cheesily great/terrible "Never Back Down") was handpicked and it seems to make a world of difference, albeit not for the better.

Two years after Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) took on baddies as his yellow-and-green-costumed alter ego Kick-Ass, he's gone back to being a normal high school student but watches a slew of new "real" superheroes, inspired by Kick-Ass, enter the limelight. Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl (Chloƫ Grace Moretz) is a freshman at the same school, cutting class to train so she can take out N.Y.C.'s criminal trash, and Dave wants in, so he can be her "Robin." After her new guardian, Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut, taking over for Omari Hardwick) catches her trying to pick up where she left off, now without father Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, only seen in a photo), Mindy tries putting down the ninja knives and leading a regular 15-year-old girl's life. Meanwhile, having lost his kingpin father to Kick-Ass and a bazooka, rich kid Chris D'Amico/Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) bristles with rage in his parents' McMansion and inheritance money. Before you know it, he's a supervillain, donning a dominatrix outfit, calling himself "The Motherfucker," and recruiting a band of psychos with plans of revenge on Kick-Ass (and getting more hits on Twitter). This spurs on Dave to remain true to his destiny, joining a league of vigilantes called Justice Forever and keeping the city clean.

The opening scene of "Kick-Ass 2" is a prime example of why there was no more story to tell. Out of their costumes, Mindy uses Dave as a shooting target, promising she won't pull the trigger but doing it anyway, twice. It was more shockingly wrong and uncomfortably humorous when we saw a nebbish Nicolas Cage doing the same to his pint-sized daughter. Throughout, it becomes clear that writer-director Wadlow can't quite nail the darkly funny tone that Vaughn did. Not that violence and humor aren't mutually exclusive, but here, the first film's blisteringly profane satire is displaced with a queasy, nasty tone. Should we be laughing when Chris accidentally kills his "Real Housewives"-type mother in a tanning bed? For kicks, there's an icky, distasteful rape joke; rape jokes only work when the rapist doesn't have the upper hand (see "This Is the End"). 

Taking into account that a sequel should up the ante in some way, this one is decidedly less streamlined and feels even longer than it already is. Many of the missteps lie in Wadlow's script, which thinks it's better to throw in everything but Big Daddy's resurrection. Dave has a falling-out with his father (Garrett M. Brown) and finds a new love interest in Night Bitch (Lindy Booth), who became a sexy vigilante after her sister was found dead in a dumpster. Mindy falling in with a snide three-girl clique and blowing them away in her dance-team audition reminds of "Mean Girls," with a few inspired touches (involving Stan Lee name-dropping and English boy band Union J, and a line about bath salts), but the surprisingly lowbrow payoff with a "sick stick" will elicit groans threefold. A "this isn't a sequel!" line and a "I Hate Reboots" T-shirt are also thrown in for good measure but just feel like lazy attempts to be meta and cute.

With Cage being gone, the gonzo replacement is Jim Carrey. The actor may have refused to promote the movie, publicly stating a mea culpa on Twitter in the wake of violence in the real world, but no one can accuse Carrey of phoning it in here. Gone before he gets enough to do and we know enough about him, Colonel Stars and Stripes, an anti-profanity, born-again ex-mob enforcer, is welcome and Carrey is a lunatic force in the role. It's just too bad this interesting character doesn't take the story down any interesting avenues upon showing up. Taylor-Johnson has less of interest to do as Dave/Kick-Ass, but even three years older, Mortez is still a badass, uttering wicked profanity that earns her a "swear jar," and has the most distinct arc out of anybody else on screen. If anything, another empathetic turn gears one up for her upcoming version of the telekinetic Carrie White.

Before the film reaches its warehouse-set endgame, the story has already run out of steam. That's not to say "Kick-Ass 2" doesn't impart a handful of guilty-pleasure moments. Outrageous gags come fast and furious here and there, especially a neighborhood massacre brought on by The Motherfucker's henchwoman, Mother Russia (Ukrainian bodybuilder Olga Kurkulina), who would feel right at home in the animated "Heavy Metal." Whereas "Kick-Ass" had a newfound freshness in the idea that anyone can be a superhero with the right kind of training and a Comic Con-made suit, "Kick-Ass 2" is a mean-spirited, morally muddled hypocrite. It's mostly about the brutally cartoonish beatings and slayings, and while that can be fun, it pounds us senseless until it just grows numbing and glorifies sadism. Squealing fanboys will enjoy it anyway and probably bash those who don't.

Grade:

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