2010’s Kick-Ass was something of a surprise hit, but also a satisfying one. Proving that indie comics could have a place in the cinematic world, the adaptation of the Mark Millar comic book series grossed a solid $96 million on a $30 million budget, virtually guaranteeing it a sequel. Its particular brand of ultra violence, particularly when enacted by the tiny-but-deadly Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) created a bit of a cultural stir, likely further contributing to its popularity. It wasn’t a great movie, but it was entertaining enough that the idea of a sequel was not an unwelcome one.
Three years later, and we have Kick-Ass 2. Gone is Matthew Vaughn from the director’s chair, replaced by Jeff Wadlow. Fortunately, virtually all of the (surviving) major players remain, allowing the story to pick up quickly where it left off. In the sequel, Dave Lizweski, the titular Kick-Ass, is trying to live a normal life as a teenager, while Mindy McReady, aka Hit Girl, is skipping school in order to continue training as a vigilante. Bored of his new, dull existence, Dave joins up with Hit Girl to form a new crime fighting duo, just as new costumed heroes are popping up, inspired by the events of the first film. After a couple of clashes with her adoptive father Marcus (Morris Chestnut), Mindy hangs up her mask and guns to try to have the normal life she never did, while Dave falls in with a new supergroup, Justice Forever. Meanwhile, Chris D’Amico (formerly Red Mist, now calling himself The Motherfucker) is putting together a group of super villains to try to take down Kick-Ass in revenge for the death of his father. Violence and mayhem and teen angst follows, in spades.
Unfortunately, much of the luster that made Kick-Ass enjoyable is absent from the sequel. There was a breezy fun amidst all the gore and brutality that, even though it created a strange dichotomy, made the film a weird, gripping little tale. Yet it all feels a little stale here, especially since much of the humor isn’t nearly as successful as it was in the original. More so, the violence has been ratcheted up, and not in a pleasant or entertaining fashion. I’m rarely one to decry excessive violence in a film, but in Kick-Ass 2, that’s exactly what it felt like at times. Not because the violence was particularly graphic or intense, but instead because it often serves little purpose other than violence for violence’s sake. And even that’s forgivable were this a conventional action flick, but the Kick-Ass franchise — and two films in, that’s a relatively safe label — wants to be something more than that. It wants to make a statement about violence and the blurred lines between reality and fiction and trying to subvert our ideas of what a hero truly is. Yet it never does more than lackadaisically pull back the curtain and give a hazy glimpse of a larger message. Instead, it focuses on making the violence as gonzo and utterly nutty as possible, with characters in increasingly ridiculous costumes. Its dramatic moments are marred by weak dialogue and an unpleasant tendency to misplace its gallows humor. There’s a bit of artistry involved in writing humor into a grim and violent situation, and Kick-Ass 2 often feels like its writers are blundering through the scenes instead. Police officers being slaughtered in droves while two henchmen point and cackle, an attempted rape scene played off as a joke (seriously, that last one was the lowest of low points) — these are examples of where the writing and directing didn’t quite know what to do with their characters and stories, and instead of creating something sharp and clever and subversive, they just made something clumsily distasteful.
Perhaps some of that would have been forgivable if not for the fact that Kick-Ass 2’s other great sin is its utter lack of originality. Instead of presenting a new story, it shoots for the “if we can’t do something better, let’s just do something bigger.” As a result, it’s got an expanded cast, including a near-unrecognizable Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars And Stripes, a completely wasted Donald Faison as Dr. Gravity, John Leguizamo as Javier, The Motherfucker’s bodyguard, and a handful of other cameos. It’s got more violence, more death, more fights and a darker tone. Yet the film utterly fails to tread any new ground, and instead simply repeats most of the plot points from the original film. Main characters bent on vengeance after a loved one dies? Check. Villains angry about their operations being disrupted? Check. Dave entering a shallow sexual relationship that includes a penchant for sneaky public sex? Check. Training montages? Check. Awkward reveal of secret identity? Check. Character dealing with coming-of-age awkwardness and social anxiety? Check. Heroes learning to trust each other and fight together? Check. Ridiculously over-the-top death scene for the antagonists? Check. Kick-Ass 2 doesn’t blaze anything resembling a new trail, instead settling for stumbling in the footsteps of its predecessor. What we end up with in is an often-boring flick broken up by the occasional gruesome fight scene that never really has any of the thrills of the original film. Yes, Mintz-Plasse is still mostly enjoyable, now given even greater opportunity to chew scenery and swear profusely. But Aaron Taylor-Johnson never hits his stride, and basically just mimics the same emotional range as he did three years ago without bringing anything new to the table.
The lone bright spot is Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl, who absolutely crushes her part. Oddly, it’s her secret identity, Mindy, that is the best part of the movie. As enjoyable as it is to see her carving her way through bad guys, it’s her awkward, uncomfortable, and surprisingly adept portrayal of a scared and lonely high school student that’s the most affecting. One of the rare wise decisions was to give her an expanded part, and not just as a foul-mouthed little ninja with daddy issues, but instead a full-formed, conflicted young woman navigating through a whole new side of life. She not only perfectly captures all of the angst and discomfort and awkwardness of a 15-year old (not surprising, given that she’s 17), but also that tragic combination of inner bitterness and hopefulness. I could have easily watched a movie with just her character navigating high school and Batmanning her way through the evenings, without any of the other extraneous junk that proliferates Kick-Ass 2.
Kick-Ass 2 is a film that took its original formula and simply diluted it in an effort to make it seem like there was more to it. There isn’t. It’s chock-full of bloody violence that wants desperately to shock but really just disappoints, characters who — with only a couple of exceptions — rarely feel fully-realized, and a story that simply rehashes most of the original plot points. It’s a shame, too, considering the talented cast. But Kick-Ass 2 squanders that cast, not to mention the goodwill it built with the first film. It essentially took the original premise, and instead of punching it up into something that could expand upon that foundation, punched it hard enough to break it. It’s dumb and listless and often kind of insulting, both to casual viewers and to comic book fans. Moretz and Mintz-Plasse certainly give it a valiant go, and they’re mostly successful, but they can’t salvage the mess that’s haphazardly been cobbled together around them. What the story deserved was an evolution, an expansion on its original themes and ideas. What it got was a lazy, bombastic doppleganger that fails to do it justice.