3 years later, we got our sequel to KICK-ASS, fulfilling the promise made at the end of the original when Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s Chris D’Amico pointed a gun at the camera and quoted the ’89 Joker’s “Wait’ll they get a load of me!” Jeff Wadlow took over writing and directing duties from Matthew Vaughn (and co-writer Jane Goldman) and the result is…less than perfect. Gone are the sense of scale (no Kick-Ass flying Hit-Girl around the city on a jet-pack in this one), the occasional sense of dead-serious foreboding, and the anything-goes vibe of a film that kills the lead character’s mother in an onscreen gag within 5 minutes of the studio titles. Also, we don’t have Nicolas Cage’s Big Daddy, such a huge element of the first film’s unique comic sensibility. But growing pains aside, I enjoyed the film for what it was, and what it tried to be, which is a more straightforward action-comedy as seen through another pair of eyes, which hurts and helps at different points in the movie.
Considering how much Vaughn reconfigured the first KICK-ASS, I was surprised by how faithful Wadlow was to Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass 2 comic book. They stick to the changes made in the first one in terms of Hit-Girl’s domestic situation and Kick-Ass’s relationship with Katie Deauxma, and it pulls some punches in terms of content and scale (the climax takes place in a decidedly smaller venue than the Times Square finale of Millar’s work), but the major story arcs, and even a bunch of the dialogue, are nearly identical. We skip over the Hit-Girl comic, where Mindy goes after the remnants of Frank D’Amico’s gang and Red Mist trains to be a supervillain with some ninjas, and go right into the period where Kick-Ass gets his gear back on and looks to set up a team of superheroes. Hit-Girl, after getting in trouble with her adopted father, Marcus, puts away the purple wig and tries to get used to life as a normal, Bieber-loving teenage girl (this is the aspect I feel will turn off many adolescent male viewers). And Red Mist hires his own team of super-villains, including his main henchman, the hulking Mother Russia, while redubbing himself “The Motherfucker”. The Motherfucker specifically targets Kick-Ass to get revenge for the death of his old man, and him and his new crew, the good-guy vigilante group “Justice Forever”, have to stop the evil crew from xing out Kick-Ass’s loved ones and terrorizing the city with wild abandon.
When I read the comic, I envisioned what the film adaptation would be like with Vaughn’s cast and action staging, and I can’t say I’m that disappointed with the onscreen translation. Sure, it’s a meat-and-potatoes version of the narrative, without the elegance that Vaughn’s personal touch might’ve added, but it does get a lot right. Red Mist’s evolution could’ve come off as very silly, especially when filtered through Mintz-Plasse’s hilarious, mannered performance, but it actually feels like an appropriate “this time, it’s personal” extension of the first one. While heavy blows from the book are excised (there’s no rape, and a certain ill-fated family member is already long-dead in this timeline), there is still enough of the darker elements of the source material present to pack a mean punch.
Make no mistake, this is a comedy first, and action movie second. This causes a few problems. For one, the subplot of Mindy trying to fit in with the popular girls at her high school is nearly devoid of . I personally laughed at a bunch of the jokes of this section, as well as the admittedly juvenile payoff that involves some serious expelling of bodily fluids, but it clashed with the more complicated, dark stuff that Hit-Girl had to go through in the first film. Also, the fight scenes themselves are shot in a shakycam style that NEVER BACK DOWN director Wadlow probably thought was the ideal way to shoot his on-screen carnage, but in reality, comes off corny and desperate in its attempts at aping typical, big-budget melees. The final set-piece, a battle royale between superheroes and supervillains, feels somewhat stunted and rushed, getting Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass to their main adversaries without build up that could’ve increased the impact of the entire film.
But I cannot deny that sometimes, the action is actually totally on and well-choreographed. The scene of Hit-Girl finally breaking her promise to Marcus and resuming her slaying of evildoers is just as strong as it was when Millar and John Romita, Jr. depicted it in comic-book form. While it’s not as classic as the best of Hit-Girls moments from KA1, and suffers from so-so greenscreen work, it’s a visceral, impressive beat that works wonderfully. There’s a “holy shit” action movie moment where Mindy fires bullet holes through a car roof and then utilizes them in a wonderfully creative way that almost made me cheer, and may be the high point of the whole film.
The primary cast, which has definitely risen in stature since the release of the first movie, definitely deserves some recognition. Aaron Taylor-Johnson seems more relaxed and natural as Dave Lizewski, even if he seems too old (and wayyyy too jacked) to still be in high school. The character is more confident and self-assured now, so Taylor-Johnson gets to drop the squeaky voiced awkwardness that came off a little forced the first time around. Christopher Mintz-Plasse takes his spoiled fuck-up of a character, and keeps him hilarious while making him darker and more psychotically driven. The guy hasn’t exhibited the most range in the world (at least, so far in his career), but between SUPERBAD, FRIGHT NIGHT, ROLE MODELS, and these films, he’s consistently managing to score major laughs with his clueless dork schtick, and I applaud him for that.
It’s Chloe Moretz as Mindy/Hit-Girl that is, again, the film’s secret weapon. She’s been humbled by the death of her father, and is a little older and more mature than she was last time, and Moretz handles the increase in her character’s complexity like a true pro. Various elements of her character, like how long it takes for her to re-don her duds and get back in the action, would probably fail if Moretz didn’t invest her character with the emotion and toughness she brings to the performance. The fact that she can melt while watching a cheesy boy-band video and cut up bad guys in the same movie with equal amounts of conviction and sincerity is mightily impressive, in and of itself. The first KICK-ASS really made her into an icon, and she repays what the franchise has afforded her by taking this occasionally-goofy role dead-seriously, completely to the movie’s benefit. I don’t care if she outgrows the role; I could watch her do this shit forever.
In the supporting cast, returning players Clark Duke and Augustus Prew get solid laughs in their expanded roles, while Yancy Butler and Lyndsy Fonseca are given throwaway cameos. As members of Justice Forever, Lindy Booth, Donald Faison, Steven Mackintosh, Monica Dolan, and Matt Steinberg all create well-rounded characters in really not that much screentime. Whoever had the idea to get Jim Carrey to play the relatively straight role of Colonel Stars and Stripes deserves a pat on the back. The megastar does a great job of dialing himself down, using a deep New York accent and falling just short of going over the top, while sneaking in some killer Carrey faces and line-readings here and there. It’s like nothing we’ve seen from the actor before, which gives the film a huge dose of second-act energy. John Leguizamo, Iain Glen, and especially Olga Kurkulina (as Mother Russia) pop up on The Motherfucker’s team; Leguizamo, like Carrey, deviates from his manic tendencies and acts as a hilarious straight man to Mintz-Plasse’s overenthusiastic, heinously stupid villainy. Morris Chestnut replaces Omari Hardwick as Marcus, but he manages to be charismatic enough that the change isn’t that major of a loss. The film, as a whole, has problems, but its cast is not at all one of them.
What is one of them is the tone. The first one felt dark; Kick-Ass getting stabbed and beaten the fuck out of was tough, and the death of Big Daddy, as ridiculous as Cage’s speech patterns made it, had pretty grim repercussions. There’s no moment here that hits as hard as Mindy seeing her dad’s unfinished hot chocolate, or when Red Mist realizes he’s thrown his only real friend into the fire. The comic and action beats work consistently well, but Wadlow (as a writer AND as a director) lacks the subtle touch to make you take this stuff as seriously as it could be. That can partly be attributed to how much more closely he adapted the material than Vaughn, but Vaughn’s deviations shaped some really poignant, strong content that Wadlow doesn’t seem willing to shoot for. I think it’s very likely that if Vaughn hadn’t given this job up for X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (which, of course, he ended up leaving anyway), it would be a more successful film. As is, it’s more of a MEN IN BLACK 3 than a MEN IN BLACK 2, playing it safe and delivering the goods while not even trying to be as brave, kinetic, and memorable as the first one.
And while it made me laugh, that Chuck Lidell cameo is a poor, poor substitute for phony, extortionist ninjas. Luckily, Mintz-Plasse throws a profane insult at the MMA fighter that is funny just because of how badly that would get his skinny ass kicked in real life. You couldn’t pay me to say that shit to him.
I remember being a way bigger fan of KICK-ASS 1 than most, so maybe I’m being too forgiving (if the word from many of my fellow online writers is any indication, perhaps WAY too forgiving), but I have to recommend this for fans of the original. It’s a shitty way to step into the franchise, but as a follow-up to one of my favorite entries in both the action AND the comic-book movie genres, it is a fun, bloody, occasionally, well, kickass time at the movies.
But it definitely shows a huge stream of CGI diarrhea. If that sort of thing makes or breaks a movie for you or anything.