The pressure of insurmountable expectations from established predecessors hangs over “Kick-Ass 2,” seen in the characters of Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Teenage Mindy trains to push herself as costumed crimefighter Hit-Girl, visibly seeking approval from the vacated costume of her late father, known to the general populace as Big Daddy. She’s promised to avoid letting down her doting dad, but she also vowed to honor Marcus (Morris Chestnut), her new legal guardian handpicked by her father, who wishes the girl would try to lead a normal, non-costumed life. Young millionaire D’Amico, meanwhile, remains haunted by the sight of his father blown to bits by a bazooka fired by young vigilante Kick-Ass at the end of the first picture, believing he can honor dad’s memory by building his own criminal empire.
That same pressure affects writer-director Jeff Wadlow, entrusted with this franchise after the first movie was helmed by director Matthew Vaughn. Wadlow was apparently hand-picked by Vaughn, who originally rose to prominence guiding early Guy Ritchie pictures “Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” Wadlow doesn’t have quite the same resume: his previous films include a tepid teen slasher called “Cry_Wolf” and violent teen backyard-MMA drama “Never Back Down,” the type of pictures that only a couple of years later a studio would shuffle to the DVD racks, bypassing theaters completely. Vaughn’s work thus far has a cheeky, self-referential sense of humor; Wadlow, by contrast, specializes in punishing, laughless genre exercises notable for their casual cut-rate brutality.
It’s not a great marriage from the start, as the cheeky violence that made the first film such a gas is replaced by joyless repetition meant to pummel the viewers into submission. From the first frames, Wadlow is in Vaughn’s shadow, recreating the moment in the first film where Big Daddy lovingly teaches his daughter to withstand a gunshot wound while wearing a bulletproof vest. Here, Mindy is firing upon Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the alter-ego of our title character, but she takes a sadistic glee in forcing him to take multiple blows to the chest and back. It’s not funny to see a young teenage girl gleefully pump a colleague full of bullets, but even beyond the pearl-clutching, it’s not a joke that informs either character.
“Kick-Ass 2” immediately falls into two traps that most action sequels succumb, by not only turning its protagonist into a peripheral character, but also de-powering him. Dave wants to hit the streets as Kick-Ass again, but his confidence gets the best of him, and he’s back to being the mousy dork he was before he put on the costume. This feels especially like a shortcut, given that enough time has passed between films that, like the recent “Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters,” the handsome young Taylor-Johnson is forced to slouch and preen to play someone much younger than himself. His training under superior crimefighter Hit-Girl seems less like its preparing Kick-Ass for the big time, and more like Taylor-Johnson is undergoing his transformation from fake superhero to real one, maybe in time for the actor’s rumored casting in “The Avengers: Age Of Ultron.”
It takes a bit of the zing out of the premise, that being the idea of kids trying to be superheroes before falling into trouble way over their heads. Now, the action carries less of a transgressive thrill: only Ms. Moretz seems like she could bring shock to the system as a little girl with a serious violent streak, but she’s only the latest in a long line of young girls with improbable self-defense skills in major blockbusters. In the first film, she was barely pubescent, but in this picture, her challenge isn’t from weapon-bearing villains, but fierce high school cliques. Her attempts to honor Marcus’ wishes finds her hanging out with a band of Heathers who obsess over boy bands and pledge allegiance to the cheerleading squad, all while cursing like sailors. It’s not satire that feels fresh or original, and a healthy amount of time is spent following this subplot without a legitimate payoff: Wadlow is less interested in a traditional comeuppance than he is broadly mocking the hyper-sexuality of young women, as seen not only through a parodic music video for a boy band that ogles barely legal abs, but in a ribald cheer routine that borders on burlesque.
Kick-Ass finds more luck by seeking a support system of fellow costumed crimefighters. One such collective is branded Justice Forever by its leader, born-again ex-Mafia thug Colonel Stars And Stripes. As played by a folksy Jim Carrey, he’s a principled leader with a sadistic streak that’s revealed to be a tactical strategy in itself. Carrey’s role is small, but there’s a strange warmth in the paternal guidance he provides Dave, helping set a surprisingly sweet tone for the brotherhood that’s formed by the group. The budding relationship between Kick-Ass and Night Bitch (Lindy Booth) seems to be less unbridled lust and more affectionate common interest, while the enthusiasm that comes from fantastical truth-stretcher Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison) is infectious. Similarly, there’s a joke-less sincerity that emerges from a doting suburban couple collectively referred to as Remember Tommy, proudly wearing home-made masks over matching sweats, forever in search of their missing son.
Mentorship is a consistent theme in the film, particularly as Dave finds himself distanced from his oblivious father (Garret M. Brown). The familial ties are a bit different for D’Amico, who accidentally offs his mother in a sloppy rage, only realizing his budding supervillainy by adopting her leftover S&M gear. The Oedipal charge from donning the leather of his late mother to honor his dad’s legacy emerges with his new name, The Motherfucker. His first act of nastiness is the petty destruction of a small bodega, the beginning of a series of shortcuts to notoriety, all followed by foreboding tweets and online messages challenging Kick Ass to pursue him. A league of supervillains soon follows him. The highlight of this colorful gang is Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), a towering strongwoman who, in one standout sequence, dismantles an entire fleet of police on a suburban street with her bare hands.
The result of this escalation is a massive last act free-for-all that delivers on the sort of costumed carnage superhero fans have come to expect from the genre. Which, in itself, feels like a bit of a comedown from the self-questioning premise of the first picture. That film mined gags from the absurdity and recklessness of superheroics while reflecting an affection for the genre. This sequel is all-in on the superhero worship, granting the audience the mindless clash while wholeheartedly endorsing the concept. Gone is the mockery of the idea of kids and adults in spandex, replaced by a whole world of heroes and villains. With the real world context absent, all that’s left is a violent throwdown: to Wadlow’s credit, his action sequences are crisp, and the final scene’s cross-cutting between multiple hand-to-hand battles allows for a rising tension. This is a talented cast, enough that you find investment in their plight, no matter how derivative.
George Lucas once said, paraphrasing, that engendering an audience’s sympathy only involved strangling an innocent kitten. Wadlow, with an assist from the comics’ chief creative force Mark Millar, reveals himself with “Kick-Ass 2” to be a devotee to the art of kitten strangling. The overwhelming feeling that pervades the frequent, and savage, action sequences that sacrifice a few characters we’ve grown to like isn’t the clever mischief of the first picture, but an unrelenting sadism that perhaps feels true to the noxious source material. Vaughn found clever ways around the comics’ casual racism, sexism and misanthropy, but here, Wadlow’s approach seems to capture the ugly tone of Millar’s work, while also unimaginatively smoothing the nasty X-rated edges down.
It doesn’t jibe with the contributions of the actors, none of whom seem willing to go to the dark places of the material: most seem to be taking direction from Colonel Stars And Stripes, who shrugs and tells the group to have fun. Carrey has very publicly distanced himself from the picture, citing his evolving views on violence in mainstream media. Seeing the film, it’s understandable, as it’s difficult to realize how, on-set, a jokey riff on silly costumes and catchphrases can be a Trojan Horse for the cruelty endorsed by the sociopaths that keep guys like Millar, who also penned the belligerent, contemptuous comic inspiration for “Wanted,” in business. The crime isn’t that “Kick-Ass 2” is vulgar (which it is), but that it’s for so little gain. [C]