Friday, January 17, 2014

Kick-Ass 2

(R, Universal Pictures, 103 mins., theatrical release date: August 16, 2013)

Remember the moment in the original Kick-Ass from 2010 where Nicolas Cage's Big Daddy awkwardly joked about the amateur fighting skills of the titular character, suggesting that he should name himself "Ass-Kick," instead? That's the self-fulfilling prophecy of Kick-Ass 2, a hacky sequel that plays at superhero satire with none of the vulgar verve or filmmaking skill that Matthew Vaughn's original demonstrated, revealing itself to be every bit the overmatched pretender that the protagonist himself was the first time around.

It's a major studio release from the same distributor who mercifully gave us Guillermo Del Toro's sumptuous Hellboy II: The Golden Army, nobly saving a worthy franchise from the annals of cultish devotion. In this case, however, Vaughn opted to step down for a mere producing credit,  personally selecting as his understudy one Jeff Wadlow, best known if at all for the teen-oriented likes of Cry_Wolf and Never Back Down. As far as I'm concerned, we're already in trouble, as neither of those films were all that fun and the latter was a woefully hypocritical concession to the theme of choosing your battles wisely, dragging down the MMA subculture with a neutered grab bag of pandering clich├ęs a la Burlesque (poor Cam Gigandet will never seem to have a respectable acting career).

Wadlow's base, impersonal marriage of superficial morality and glorified brutality is the norm of Kick-Ass 2, particularly when he's not trying to ape Vaughn's reckless style as evident from scene one, a nod to the bullet-bearing endurance test Big Daddy subjected his daughter to. In this case, the child becomes the father to the man, as Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz) is training her ally/surrogate older brother Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to withstand the force of a 700 mph gunshot at close range. One would assume the rest of the movie would capitalize on the unlikely bond between the precociously embattled Hit Girl and the noble if milquetoast Kick-Ass, but Wadlow gets sidetracked by so many subplots that the lack of chemistry between Johnson and Moretz is rendered all the more unfortunate.

Alas, Mindy/Hit Girl is pressured into giving up her vigilante vocation by new legal guardian Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut, feebly replacing Omari Hardwick) and instead focusing on her freshman year in high school, where she is the target of a cheerleader bitch squad. Dave/Kick-Ass is clearly in need of a new mentor, which he finds in Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), a born-again ex-Mafioso who heads the good guy contingent called Justice Forever. Dave's envious best friends decide to get in on the DIY heroism craze, the chunky Marty Eisenberg (Clark Duke) having christened himself "Battle Guy" and stolen the motivation of Bruce Wayne in a feeble attempt at self-justification.

The biggest grudge remains held by the former Red Mist, Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, borderline insufferable), still stewing over his father's vanquishing via bazooka and given to hissy fits of rage which cause him to inadvertently murder his mom (Yancy Butler). Inheriting her guns and fetish wear, Chris settles upon the Oedipal-sounding moniker of The Motherfucker in his quest for super-villainy. The pipsqueak naturally puts his fortunes to use in hiring a slew of rough-and-ready minions with names like Genghis Carnage (Tom Wu), Black Death (Daniel Kaluuya) and Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), the only one of whom to earn her keep thanks to her ingenious methods of death and destruction such as backing up at full speed towards a cop car with a running lawnmower atop the trunk. But Dave remains oblivious to the creeping threat until tragedy strikes thanks to a hot tip from Chris' other friend, Todd Haynes (Augustus Pew).

Kick-Ass 2 begins with Dave settling back into his masturbatory dweeb groove as previously established at the beginning of Vaughn's film, complete with an arbitrary, dopey send-off for former crush Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca). That introductory rush of regression tells you what to expect from writer/director Wadlow, who hits the reset button before proceeding yanking away the controls in order to play the exact same game Vaughn did, but with all the expertise of a doltish dad trying to bluff through Assassin's Creed. Whatever gravity and quirkiness its predecessor established has been calcified and buttressed by a sophomoric, sociopath complacency which utterly ruins the action and comedy. There's no disreputable thrill to be had anymore at the sight of a preteen girl wielding guns and slinging foul-mouthed one-liners, and the supposed principal character has been reduced to a cipher despite his newly-acquired pectorals. The novelty is simply no longer there, replaced by desperation and self-conscious stabs at irony and transgression.

Caught in the crossfire is the character of Mindy Macready, who in a just world would've been given a spin-off movie of her own. Chloe Grace Moretz became a lightning rod for controversy thanks to the brazen bloodletting and back-talking Hit Girl exhibited in the original, but she approached it with seasoned comic timing and a guarded tenderness. It's only fitting that the movie expand on her personality and give her a dilemma no different from any number of caped crusader flicks. There are moments in Moretz's portrayal of this prickly wallflower which flirt with brilliance, namely a hormonal awakening at the sight of a boy band music video (the group in question is Union J, clearly subbing in for One Direction) and a cheerleader tryout sequence in which Mindy returns to the mindset of Hit Girl for a crowd-pleasing routine, one which naturally rankles queen bee Brooke (Claudia Lee). Under Wadlow's vantage, though, the latter sequence is more interested in capturing every hyper-sexual gyration of the pretty pink princess than presenting a clever shattering of boundaries. Wadlow even resolves this identity crisis with thudding scatological bluntness, continuing to dawdle in regards to any natural growth in regards to Mindy.

Moretz is one of the best young talents working now, but the platitudes and pedantry she's saddled with doesn't help her at all. Furthermore, Wadlow's dramatic inertia doesn't really give her a stake in the ensuing action or an arc worthy of what Vaughn achieved on the first go. And it's not as if either of her boyish co-stars are given anything inventive, too. Dave Lizewski is shoehorned into a Peter Parker copycat narrative in his opposition to his father (Garrett M. Brown), with Chris D'Amico as Harry Osborn, which Wadlow plays overtly straight. The only "satire" arrives when The Motherfucker and his cronies swoop upon Dave's new love interest, Miranda Swedlow/Night Bitch (Lindy Booth, star of Wadlow's earlier Cry_Wolf), and Chris' plan to rape her is defused by a sudden bout of impotence. That she's instead roughed up with no real lingering damage is another of many strikes against Wadlow's soft-pedaling insistence on invoking the phrase "real life" throughout the picture, especially amidst a succession of extremely artificial action and fight sequences clearly aimed at exploiting the comic book-collecting crowd (did I forget to mention that this is based on the Marvel series created by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.?).

Filling in for the late Big Daddy is an underused Jim Carrey, who infamously refused to do publicity for Kick-Ass 2 by citing moral qualms in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Naturally, the reaction from the media as well as the remaining cast/crew served to compensate for Carrey's denial. Far from questioning his stance, what Carrey's reaction suggested was that this film's violence quota is anywhere near the brazen if entertaining irresponsibility of the first film, when in fact it's really just numbing and badly filmed/edited in the typical shaky-cam, CG-reliant, cut-cut-cut style. Playing a bone-crunching missionary who doesn't even carry a loaded gun and instead has an attack dog named Eisenhower as his top weapon (trained to go for the nuts, just like Chopper from Stand by Me), Carrey gives it his best, as does the equally squandered John Leguizamo as the D'Amico family servant Javier, but both of them have so little to do that their farewells are of minor consequence.

And that's what Kick-Ass 2 is all about when you get right down to it, inconsequential fanservice that pussyfoots around anything savvy or sincere. Matthew Vaughn once used Joan Jett, Sparks and a pop-punk version of the theme from The Banana Splits to his giddy advantage and owed more to John Woo in his over-the-top butchery. He and Jane Goldman wrote a plum role that reminded us of all the right Nic Cage can achieve onscreen given the proper care. And he demonstrated assurance in the film's tonal duality which served the irreverence as well as the innocence.

Jeff Wadlow, meanwhile, proves himself out of his depth and fresh out of ideas in trying to up the ante, reduced to putting another Jett song (a bad remix of "I Hate Myself for Loving You") alongside a clear imitation of a pivotal scene from John Hughes' Ferris Bueller's Day Off (his derivations from Mean Girls have been duly noted by so many other critics).  His eye for character detail, chiefly the implementing of a bullied homosexual teen as well as a pair concerned parents who honor their missing child into the Justice Forever league, are mere devices to be shrugged off. And the superfluous subplots and contrivances lead you directly to a predictable finale complete with a Chekhov's Shark Tank comeuppance that doesn't so much kick ass as it winds up having its own ass kicked.

As Hit Girl herself would put it, "Game over, cocksuckers!"

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