Last time it was spring, not the end of summer. It’s hard to forget the time surrounding the release of Kick-Ass. Especially for anyone who spent that time writing at the intersection of film and nerds. To its credit, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass was very successful in one area: it engaged a small but passionate base of fans. To outsiders, it was crazy and probably more than a little dumb. But to those who saw it for what it was, Kick-Ass was a hyper-violent, intensely vulgar commentary on the entire comic book culture. It was a blast. So much so that we found ourselves defending it as its box office debut looked more like a stab to the gut than a triumphant victory. It was a hard fought battle for movie geeks. Our scuba-suited champion was gunned down in his prime.
Three years later, we should probably be glad just to have a sequel in Kick-Ass 2. But after seeing it, maybe we should’ve let it go.
Very few of the 30-odd people in attendance of the same opening night screening as this writer seemed particularly grateful to be back in the lives of Dave Lizewski (a beefier Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mindy Macready (a much taller Chloe Grace Moretz). They all just seemed to want to see some violence. On that, director Jeff Wadlow’s sequel does deliver. Yet it was hard not to notice that something was missing. Kick-Ass 2 presents a world set two years after the events of the first film, in which Dave and Mindy are both still struggling with their alter-egos. He misses the life, she can’t give it up. Then she gets convinced to give it up just as he wants back in. And round and round they go, only to end up getting sucked back in together by the revenge-seeking Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse with a Dave Navarro makeover).
Like any good sequel, we are handed a few fun new characters. Jim Carrey is the grizzled Colonel Stars and Stripes, a born-again former mafia enforcer who organizes an after-school club for costumed heroes. Donald Faison is in the club, as is the lovely Lindy Booth (her hero name is Night Bitch and wears the equivalent of a small handbag-worth of leather on her entire body, so she’s cool). It’s all fairly perfunctory and drama-less until D’Amico, now calling himself The Motherfucker, comes along and tries to kill his way to Kick-Ass. Because this movie, unlike its predecessor, actually seems to need reasons to say the word “motherfucker.”
If it sounds like the Kick-Ass franchise has lost an edge, you’re being very perceptive, dear reader. Most of the action we get in round two is much of the same. There’s plenty of blood, wanton death and lots of Chloe Moretz saying naughty words, this time in numerous languages. The missing piece, however, is the notion of stakes. With this level of copy/paste world-building, it’s hard not to compare it to the first film. And the advantage held by round one is simple: through all of the kiddie dress-up time, there was a narrative that included very serious adult stakes. The vigilante justice thread between Nicolas Cage’s Big Daddy and Mark Strong’s Frank D’Amico was an important stakes-raiser.
Their war might have been fought with children, but it was on a very mortal, matured scale. Frank was a scary villain, Big Daddy was a formidable opponent. And in the end, two kids were given a big, flaming reason to rise up and take down the bad guy. It was dangerous and significant. On the flipside, Kick-Ass 2 has more vomit and fecal matter-related humor than any other summer movie I’ve seen this year. I skipped The Lone Ranger, so you never know, but I think this one is going to win that particular prize.
What I’m trying to say is that Kick-Ass 2 has a villain problem. Frank’s son Chris can call himself whatever he wants, but he’s never quite the villain that he needs to be. Perhaps intentionally, The Motherfucker is mostly an idiot. Even worse, he never seems that serious about what he’s doing.
At any point it would have seemed completely in-character for him to take off his mask and say, “You know what guys, never mind. I’m going to go play XBox instead,” before blithely walking away. This is the vibe you get from the film’s main villain. That’s never a good thing.
On the other side of things, Moretz is still the foul-mouthed star of the show. Even though she gets a detour through a much more frightening world (high school) and a brief sexual awakening, when Hit-Girl puts on the mask and starts spewing expletives, she’s a vibrant reminder of what made that first movie so much fun. Then again, she was also the emotional core of that first movie, something that doesn’t quite land in the sequel when the focus is put on Dave. Put to the task of carrying the emotional weight of the film, Taylor-Johnson just doesn’t quite have it. His Dave Lizewski can’t escape the fact that he’s still goofy Dave Lizewski. He’s a kid playing hero, just like everyone else in this movie.
It all softens the stakes, which doesn’t do much but cartoonize some of the violence. Even worse, it saps the energy out of the entire affair. Where the first film was electrifying and razor sharp, this one is dull and limp. It still has its fun moments. One of which comes with a sinister, albeit poorly accented cameo from a Game of Thrones cast member. And Jim Carrey’s strange Colonel Stars and Stripes is criminally underused. And yeah, a lot of people are killed or maimed in somewhat creative ways.
But it’s all void of that adult element, without that connection to an unnerving reality, to real world stakes. Without that, Kick-Ass 2 can be no better than any of its costumed characters. It wants us to think it’s dangerous when all the while, it’s just a paralegal in spandex.
The Upside: Chloe Moretz is a lot of fun as Hit-Girl, as are a few of her new co-stars (I’m looking at you, Mr. Jim “Non-Violent” Carrey).
The Downside: The stakes are lower, the connection to reality is flimsier and the energy just isn’t there.
On the Side: There is a post-credits tag (that’s way at the end of the credits), if you’re into that sort of thing.