Thursday, August 22, 2013

Kick Ass 2

Alternate Title:  Tipper Gore's Recurring Nightmare

One sentence synopsis:   Kick Ass and Hit Girl try to reconcile their lives as superheroes with their lives as High Schoolers, while confronting the menace of the Motherfucker and his army of legbreakers.

Things Havoc liked:  Mark Millar's Kick Ass, a comic about a teenaged comic book fan who decides to become a real-life superhero, is a noxious, mean-spirited slap at everyone who ever liked comic books or indulged in escapism, brought to us by one of the most despicable hypocrites working in comics today, and I'll remind you that this is an industry that employs Joe Qaesada, Frank Miller, and Rob Leifeld. And yet, the 2010 movie version of Kick-Ass, written and directed by X-men First Class' Matthew Vaughn, was a triumph on almost every level, a masterpiece that effortlessly overcame what flaws it inherited by replacing Millar's smug contempt for his audience, industry, and career, with a self-aware nod to everything both absurd and endearing about comic book power fantasies. One of the finest movies I saw in the entire decade of the 2000s, Kick-Ass was almost a rebuttal to its own source material, and I, for one, was on board. It was irreverent, it was violent, it was hilarious, it was goofy, it was touching, it was masterfully-crafted, it was everything that the films that tried to ape it (Super, Defendor) were not, simultaneously a parody of and an ode to Superheroes as a concept. And so it is that we find ourselves, three years later, facing Kick Ass 2, wondering if lightning can strike twice.

Kick Ass had so many strengths, that to list them here would take all day, but among them were excellent actors, a wonderful score, and a brilliant script that juggled ultra-violence, camp, and realism, all without dropping any of them. With almost every major character (save the dead ones) returning, it should be no surprise that the first of these categories remains just as good in the sequel. Many people did not like Aaron Johnson in the original film (one reviewer called him 'devoid of charisma'), but I thought his performance was excellent then, and excellent now. Teenagers, even ones with the balls to do what he does, are not known for over-emoting every time they step outside, and his highly-realistic portrayal of a situation that was farcical when it wasn't horrifying, anchors both films very effectively, grounding us in a real world rather than some Wagnerian hero-opera such as Thor. Another criticism leveled at him was that Chloe Moretz, as Hit Girl, blew him off the screen, which to be honest was true, and remains true here, not that I'm complaining. No longer the pint-sized murder-machine of three years before, Moretz' Hit Girl is now a teenager, and much of the film consists of exploring just what that means to a girl whose early childhood was spent slaughtering drug dealers with a halberd. I've become an unrepentant fan of Moretz' since the original Kick Ass, and she doesn't disappoint here. Her stuntwork is still superb, and unlike in the previous film, she is given the chance to act with a bigger range than "whispering badass" or "girly assassin". It should be no surprise that she pulls it off.

But it's Christopher Plasse, formerly Red Mist, now an insane, revenge-obsessed would-be supervillain named "The Motherfucker", who steals this round. His character has gone completely round the bend, raving and snarling and inhaling scenery like it holds the cure for something, and yet Plasse adds just a few touches, here and there, of the dweeby nerd that he was in the original film, relying on his money to force people to take seriously what they would otherwise laugh out the door. Every scene Plasse is in is awesome and hilarious, as he undergoes a series of psychotic breaks that lead him further and further into comic-book-villain levels of insanity. What would be absurd in any other film is practically required here, but unlike in Millar's version, he never goes so far as to become a parody of evil (or worse yet, a stand-in for what Millar thinks of his fans). A few wonderful winks at Millar's original script, and the truly horrific elements that were cut for tone here, stand out all the brighter if you know where this character originally went.

New to the films is Jim Carrey, playing Colonel Stars & Stripes, a former mafia enforcer-turned Born-Again Christian who organizes a superhero team with Kick Ass and a host of other would-be heroes. It would have been so easy to turn Carrey's character into a raving psychopath ala Roarshach, but the movie actually has the balls to play him straight, a man who, for whatever reason, has decided to live as a hero in every sense of the word. He beats (and mauls) human traffickers and rapists, yet leads his team to help out at soup kitchens, escort inebriated college co-eds home safely, and otherwise simply improve the lives of those around them. No other film would have the guts to play this character straight, for fear of appearing way too saccharine and idealistic, yet the filmmakers here know that this is Kick Ass, an orgiastic bloodfest of impeccable credentials, and that they can therefore do what nobody else could. John Leguizamo, meanwhile, plays Javier, Motherfucker's butler and personal assistant, and like Carrey, plays it completely straight, almost Alfred-like, despite the fact that his ward is not Batman, but a raving lunatic. Rounding out the cast are Scrubs' Donald Faison as Doctor Gravity, another one of Kick Ass' team who gets little material but does excellent things with what he gets, and Russian bodybuilder Olga Kurkulina as Mother Russia, a former KGB killer hired by Motherfucker to kick-start his reign of terror. Kurkulina is amazing in this film, a force of nature so gargantuan and imposing that it's hard to imagine she's not CGI. Her battles with the police and later Hit Girl are the stuff of dreams.

Kick-Ass 2's score, by returning music composer Henry Jackman, picks up where the last one left off, using the same leitmotifs stolen from Clint Mansel (not that I object). The score is more restrained this time around, more in the vein of a traditional action-comedy than Kick Ass was, but the music is still uniformly excellent, so who's complaining? Thematically, the film branches out a bit, covering both Kick-Ass' response to the escalation of the stakes in the war between him and the Motherfucker, and Hit Girl's efforts to find a normal life for herself at the cusp of high school. As the former thread plays out approximately the way it did in the first film, the latter is the really new addition here, supplying Hit-Girl with a trio of Mean Girls-inspired cheerleader types whom she tries to use to integrate into normal life. This is not the terrible idea that the synopsis sounds like, and the resolution for it is one of the most hilarious (and disgusting) things in a film well supplied with both.

Things Havoc disliked:  I really cannot speak highly enough of the original Kick Ass, and I fear that fact is tainting both my reaction to the film, and that of others (more on them in a minute). Kick Ass was a remarkable film in a whole number of ways, one that simply felt different than anything around it. And perhaps it's because we're no longer in 2010, or perhaps it's the change in directors and writers, but Kick Ass 2... just isn't.

The pieces are all here, the cast and the concept and everything else that made Kick Ass so awesome, and yet the whole movie doesn't connect as strongly as the original did, in basically any way. Though the action scenes are decent enough, the cinematography has taken a big step downwards, to the point where shakey-cam has begun to rear its ugly head again, spoiling, as usual, all of the hard work that goes into whatever scene they've engaged in. But beyond that, the action sequences just lack the explosive punch that they did in the first one. There is nothing in the film to match the jaw-dropping splendor of the strobe-lit warehouse fight scene from Kick Ass, nor the sheer manic absurdity of Hit Girl's corridor fight from the first movie. Several scenes seem to want to recapture the magic of the originals (quite visibly in fact), but the shot selection, and frankly, the writing, is just not up to par. Hit Girl's one-liners feel more stale than they used to, and while Moretz is as badass as ever, there's just an unavoidable sense that we're watching the low-rent version of Hit Girl's antics.

This, effectively, is the issue with the entire film. Nothing is particularly wrong with the movie, and yet there are cracks in the facade that the original papered over with skill and awesomeness. The new characters, several of whom are truly amazing, do not receive the same level of introduction that Hit Girl and Big Daddy did in the original, something which particularly harms the ones that are not so amazing. Kick Ass' new love interest, another would-be superhero called Night Bitch, is completely undeveloped, used for nothing but to generate some cheap heat for our villains, who truly do not require it, given the lengths they're already going to. Mother Russia is amazing, but the remaining supervillains from Motherfucker's army (the Toxic Mega-Cunts. Yeah, you heard me.) are completely one-note, or more accurately half-note, given a couple of lines of introduction and then effectively discarded until it's time for them to serve as punching bags for our heroes. Perhaps this is a product of the wider scope of the film, which has to juggle Hit Girl, Kick Ass, and Motherfucker's stories, none of which have a lot to do with one another until the end of the film. As a result, the movie has to gloss over elements that, in the original film, were given front-and-center treatment. There are no scenes, for instance, to compare with those of Hit Girl and Big Daddy simply sitting around and talking, partly because there is no Big Daddy in the film, but mostly because there is simply no time, something I don't understand at all, given the sub-two-hour runtime of this movie.

Final thoughts:   This movie was not well received, not by the mainstream critics, nor by those in the nerd community who lauded the original. Some of this is the inevitable disappointment when a movie does not live up to its illustrious ancestor, but I won't deny there are some fair points among those who have declared Kick Ass 2 to "suck". But that said, the mere fact that Kick Ass 2 is not the equal of the first one does not make it a bad film, and I will be damned if I didn't laugh my head off all the way through it. No, the magic of Kick Ass is not intact in this version, but bereft of that magic, we are left with a film that is flawed but still perfectly serviceable, not the equal of its parent, but worthy in its own right. Ultimately, all I can really report on is that, whether because of this movie's inherent qualities, the sheer strength of the underlying premise and characters, or some lingering, misguided sympathy for the original (I acknowledge the possibility), I heartily enjoyed the experience of watching Kick Ass 2, and fervently hope that it does well enough to warrant a third film.

And frankly, so long as that's the case, what more is there to say?

Final Score:  7/10

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