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Entries in Kick-Ass 2 [2013] (1)

Wednesday
Aug212013

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Blood, Guts, Glory

This week's episode of the KtS Podcast was supposed to feature a round-table discussion of Kick-Ass 2, but that's not going to happen. The other participants refused to see the movie. One made a dismissive raspberry sound when I asked if they'd caught it over the weekend; the other flat-out said he didn't want to waste twelve bucks. These reactions, I imagine, were born from a combination of mixed feelings about the first film, and the critical savaging the sequel received ahead of last weekend's abysmal opening.

Whatever the reason for their timidity (and yours), Jeff Wadlow's picture proves that fortune really does favor the brave: Kick-Ass 2 is a flawed but worthy follow-up to what I consider one of the best comic-book movies ever made.*

The plot takes cues from Mystery Men and The Dark Knight, crossing the premise of everyday citizens donning cheap costumes to fight crime with the grim results implicit in such a bold move. When last we saw high school student-turned-titular-vigilante Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), he'd retired after blowing up New York mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) and wiping out most of his empire with the help of pre-teen partner, Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace-Moretz). In the two years since, scores of new heroes have emerged to take up the do-gooder mantle, including wannabe master-of-levitation Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison); a former hit man who apparently discovered Jesus and patriotism in the same weekend (Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars and Stripes); and a middle-aged married couple, who seek justice for their kidnapped, presumed-dead son (Steven Mackintosh and Monica Dolan as the dynamic duo, Remembering Tommy).

Meanwhile, D'Amico's son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) plots revenge against Kick-Ass and begins assembling a team of international sociopaths with race-baiting names like Black Death (Daniel Kaluuya), Genghis Carnage (Tom Wu), and Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina). Before long, Kick-Ass is drawn back into the fray, while Hit-Girl (aka Mindy Macready) takes on her scariest challenge yet: trying to fit in with the popular kids at school and creating something resembling a normal life.

I doubt it was Wadlow's intent for the meandering first third of the movie to mirror his characters' struggles. But this holds thematically and objectively true. Kick-Ass 2 throws a lot at the audience and asks them to sort it out, without doing the hard work itself, and that's more than a little disconcerting. Chris D'Amico spends too much time holed up in his mansion, plotting robberies, whining at his bodyguard (John Leguizamo), and inadvertently killing his horrible mother. Dave toys with getting back into crimefighting, but is overshadowed by much more interesting characters. And Mindy's awkward foray into Mean Girls territory feels like a toothless satire of a satire.

Luckily, act two kicks into high gear with the appearance of Chris's imprisoned Uncle Ralph (Iain Glen). He catches wind of his nephew's antics and shows him what happens to people who screw around with mob empires--even fragmented ones. Instead of intimidation, Chris feels empowered to escalate his plans as a newly minted supervillain called The Motherfucker. This focus becomes the film's driving force: an all-out war on the forces of good.

The Kick-Ass series has bee widely criticized for its ultra-violence, especially because much of it involves actors playing children (or, in Moretz's case, actors who actually are children). Critics call the movies "reprehensible" and accuse them of being amoral--which is surprising, because people who watch films for a living should know the difference between amorality and ambiguous or complex morality. Kick-Ass 2, in particular, is packed with lots of interesting scenarios and high-minded, right-versus-wrong debates. Unless you've followed the Pacific Rim model of completely shutting off your brain and enjoying the pretty colors, I don't understand how you can walk out of this movie with the opinion that it has nothing of value to say.

I guess one could look at Colonel Stars and Stripes ordering his dog to clamp down on a pimp's balls as grotesque, but does that incident overshadow his crew's giving the scumbag's cash to the underage prostitutes he'd kept locked in an apartment? What about an earlier scene, where he and his fellow heroes serve dinner at a soup kitchen? Is that the kind of irredeemable, low-class garbage everybody's harping on? For that matter, where was all this indignant rage when City of God introduced the world to pre-teen mass-murderer Little Dice? Probably drowned out by all the critical acclaim.

The problem, I think, is that Kick-Ass 2 is a summer comic-book movie, and the darkness threshold in summer comic-book movies is very narrow. The Dark Knight almost crossed it, but completely sold out its promise in the last twenty minutes to become a tame, (relatively) feel-good fable. Unlike that film, and the embarrassing, watery bread that followed, Kick-Ass 2 has the courage of its convictions; sure, The Motherfucker is a joke, but he has millions of dollars, underworld connections, and an insatiable appetite for vengeance that guarantees he'll kill everyone in his path until he wraps his rubber dominatrix gloves around Kick-Ass's throat. Wadlow packs his film with punishing amounts of cruelty and filth in the best meta-commentary on the ridiculousness of superheroes since Alan Moore's Watchmen.

I don't mean to sing the film's praises too highly. Maybe this is the nihilist in me writing, but I would have preferred to see a few more of Kick-Ass's friends picked off by film's end. During the climactic showdown between rival gangs of costumed freaks, exactly zero percent of the good guys is crippled or hauled off in meat wagons. It's the film's single concession to cuddle-dom, and I couldn't believe the cheat. It was also a bit weird to see Moretz's character wander off into a bullying subplot, knowing that we're only a couple months away from seeing her play a similarly scorned high-schooler in the Carrie remake. 

Had Wadlow been given input from the first film's masterminds, Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, or even comics creator Mark Millar (who wrote the source material), perhaps Kick-Ass 2 would have come out as a more streamlined, less schizophrenic experience. The messages and strong character work are all there, but they often struggle to peek out from behind the filmmaker's apparent lack of confidence. For every moment that works, there are two that don't, and I think the movie is one more edit away from being really solid.

I can't say if Kick-Ass 2 is "better" than Part One, but it offers a welcome capper to a story I didn't think needed a sequel. I'm glad I watched it, and plan to do so again--which is more than I can say for most of the disposable tights-and-fights fare stinking up the multiplex this summer. This film's failures are twice as interesting as The Man of Steel's triumphs, and it's a crime that so many people are staying away from it (unlike that film, Kick-Ass 2 wears its nihilism on its sleeve, rather than masquerading as a movie about hope).

*Three years ago, I called Part One the best film of its kind; I still think it's great, but other genre-twisting adventures have muddied the waters in the interim--which is by no means a bad thing.