Friday, August 16, 2013

Kick-Ass 2: Still bustin' skulls

Kick-Ass 2 (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, brief nudity, crude sexuality, plenty of violence and buckets o' blood
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.16.13

Sequels are de rigueur in the comic book world, even when the material doesn’t necessarily demand subsequent chapters.

It all builds to this: As Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) watches from the sidelines,
Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, center) confronts his wildly garbed arch-nemesis
(Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in anticipation of a true battle royale.
I’m pretty sure writer Mark Millar and artist John Romita Jr. never expected 2008’s Kick-Ass to be more than an eight-issue miniseries, although Millar did leave himself an out, with the aggrieved young snot Red Mist demanding revenge in the final panel, following his evil father’s quite fitting death.

But the original series became a smash success, and director Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 film adaptation — which he co-scripted, with Jane Goldman — was one of that summer’s biggest surprises: a gleefully violent guilty pleasure that delivered the right blend of snarky humor and gory mayhem.

No surprise, then, that Millar and Romita re-teamed for the seven-issue Kick-Ass 2, which kicked off in December 2010 ... followed by the five-issue Hit-Girl, which began last August; and the ongoing-as-we-speak Kick-Ass 3, which debuted in July.

No surprise, as well, that director/scripter Jeff Wadlow has unleashed a big-screen sequel.

But I approached this second movie outing with more than a little concern. Millar has a reputation for pushing the envelope of good taste — hell, he shredded the damn thing several years ago — and his comic book Kick-Ass 2 is unforgivably mean-spirited, even given the violent realm within which his characters operate.

Fortunately, Wadlow’s cooler head prevailed, and he recognized — quite correctly — that mainstream viewers wouldn’t tolerate casual rapes or the pointless execution of little children (a needless story element I suspect Millar would like to recant, in this post-Sandy Hook era). Indeed, Wadlow makes his point rather emphatically, when this film’s über-villain — Red Mist, albeit with a new nom de bad, and back for his predictable revenge — balks at the offer of killing a dog, insisting “I’m not that evil.”

In yo’ face, Mr. Millar.

Wadlow actually bases his script on elements from both the Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl story arcs, opening as our two triumphant heroes — Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz) — attempt to resume normal lives. For Dave, that means hanging out with best friends Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Augustus Prew), or watching TV at home with his father (Garrett M. Brown).

But Dave is the lucky one; he has a normal life. Poor Mindy knows nothing beyond the battle training developed during years under her late father’s guidance: a reprehensible upbringing that her new guardian, police detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut) demands that she set aside in order to “enjoy” the calmer routine of life as a high school freshman.

Obviously, Marcus has forgotten his own younger days. Mindy’s previous bouts with gun-toting thugs are nothing compared to the contemptuous belittling she endures at the hands of queen bee/varsity dance captain Brooke (Claudia Lee) and her apprentice bee-yatches.

Perhaps a quick recap is due, at this point. Dave and Mindy exist in a world very much like our own, albeit one that posits the irresistible notion that a few altruistic individuals, weaned on comic books, don homemade costumes and embark on ill-advised amateur crime-fighting careers. In one corner of this unspecified metropolis, Mindy and her father, as Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, took on drug baron Frank D’Amico; Dave, initially operating elsewhere, soon joined them as Kick-Ass.

But the genius of Millar’s creation is that this obviously satiric premise, which the first film milked for plenty of snarky humor, is offset by real-world consequences. People die, and quite horribly; Dave nearly got killed himself, before developing reasonable physical skills. And bad things happened to good people, before Dave and Mindy finally prevailed against D’Amico, whose son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) had remade himself as Red Mist, in order to lure our heroes into a trap.

And, so, the lines are drawn in this big-screen sequel. Dave, suffering adrenalin withdrawal, allies himself with a gaggle of copycat “heroes” who’ve banded together as a group dubbed Justice Forever, led by Col. Stars and Stripes (a gravel-voiced Jim Carrey). But try as he might, Dave cannot get Mindy to break a promise she made to Marcus, that she discard Hit-Girl’s purple wig and skin-tight uniform.

The seething Chris D’Amico, however, isn’t willing to call it quits. Assembling his own crew of “super villains,” he embarks on a highly visible campaign of death and destruction, hoping to lure Kick-Ass out of hiding. Actually, the not-terribly-bright Chris — who has re-christened his evil self under a name that cannot be mentioned in a family newspaper — has only one truly formidable ally, and she’s quite a scary monster. That would be Mother Russia, played to the ferocious hilt by Ukraine bodybuilder Olga Kurkulina.

This exaggerated nonsense is grounded, in great part, by Moretz’s persuasive performance as Mindy/Hit-Girl: still one of the most iconic young female characters ever brought to the big screen. On the one hand, Moretz’s Hit-Girl is a glibly profane, trash-talking force of nature, incredibly adept with her razor-edged swords and gymnastic grace; alternatively, she’s equally credible as the vulnerable Mindy, so easily cowed by her school’s Mean Girl pack.

At a particularly humiliating moment, our hearts simply break for poor Mindy; Moretz knows how to work the tremulous lips and shattered expression.

More crucially, she can make even the craziest dialogue sound reasonable. I’ve charted Moretz’s career ever since her breakout supporting performance in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer, and she just gets better. Her only problem here is that at (real world) 16 years of age, she’s rapidly outgrowing Mindy Macready’s essential “little girl” appearance.

Taylor-Johnson is fine, as well, as the far more “ordinary” Dave Lizewski (if the term even applies, in such circumstances). Dave’s biggest weakness remains a gullible tendency to be too trusting, too impulsive, and Taylor-Johnson continues to be a well-cast — and well-played — personification of this equally unlikely character.

Carrey is hilariously gruff as the oddly formal Col. Stars and Stripes, who thinks nothing of beating goons to a pulp, but draws the line at taking the Lord’s name in vain. Of the various Justice Forever members, Donald Faison stands out as the hilariously named Dr. Gravity — whose “gravity weapon” is merely a dressed-up baseball bat — and Lindy Booth delivers plenty of perky charm as the scantily clad Night Bitch.

Mintz-Plasse is sputteringly over the top as the ineffectual Chris D’Amico: a numbnuts clown with few actual skills, who compensates by attempting to buy his way to evil success, with his late father’s ill-gotten gains. In a similar vein, we briefly meet Chris’ incarcerated Uncle Ralph, chillingly played by Iain Glen, a familiar face from HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Chestnut is the epitome of parental concern as Marcus, and John Leguizamo strikes a similarly sympathetic note as Javier, the one calming influence in Chris’ increasingly unhinged life.

Wadlow comes to us from low-rent teen efforts such as 2005’s Cry Wolf and 2008’s Never Back Down, neither of which set the world on fire. But he definitely understands the tone needed for this project, and he deftly handles the necessary blend of arch comedy and limb-severing carnage. You’ll love this film’s all-stops-out money sequence, superbly orchestrated by stunt coordinator James O’Dee, which takes place within and atop a speeding delivery van.

On the other hand, Wadlow isn’t quite as methodical when it comes to maintaining his plot threads. Mindy demonstrates superb chops while trying out for her school’s cheerleading squad, but then nothing comes of this, aside from making an enemy of Brooke. And Mindy’s eventual “revenge” against Brooke and her fellow mean girls is atrociously dumb: a disgusting slapstick sequence better suited to Bridesmaids and its many imitators.

Worse yet, Todd’s ill-advised behavior, while trying to “fit in” with Dave’s newly revealed second life, feels half-baked and wholly unbelievable.

So no, while this sequel remains a lot of fun — and is certain to please genre addicts — it’s neither as fresh nor as dementedly Out There as its predecessor. That said, this one definitely leaves room for another sequel ... and I’m certainly ready to see where Moretz’s Mindy Macready might go, from here.

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