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Friday, August 16, 2013

'Kick-Ass 2's' hero satire proves both too much and not enough

DYNAMIC DUO: Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz in Kick-Ass 2
  • Courtesy of Marv Films
  • DYNAMIC DUO: Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz in 'Kick-Ass 2'
Jim Carrey wasn't just talking out of his butt when he withdrew his support from the dark superhero comedy Kick-Ass 2 in June. With a nod to the December 14 Sandy Hook massacre, he announced, "I did Kick-Ass a month before Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence. My apologies to others involved with the film. I am not ashamed of it but recent events have caused a change in my heart."

Ironically, the blood-drenched sequel doesn't glorify gun violence to the extent of 2010's original Kick-Ass, which featured tween vigilante Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) blasting away at bad guys with handguns. Both Kick-Ass films unmistakably aim for an over-the-top, cartoonish level of carnage, but even a fan of intense action movies might feel ambivalent toward Kick-Ass 2. The film presents itself as an outlandish satire while paying lip service to the idea of showing "the real world with real consequences. Despite its provocative title, Kick-Ass 2 manages to be at once excessive and wishy-washy.

High school senior David Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson in a terrible wig), formerly the amateur superhero named Kick-Ass, trains with expert fighter Hit Girl, a.k.a. Mindy Macready, who's orphaned following the death of her father (Nicolas' Cage's Big Daddy). David gets the itch to resume fighting bad guys and uses social media to link up with Justice Forever, a silly team of make-shift superheroes. Jim Carrey's Colonel Stars and Stripes, a Mafia enforcer turned born-again Christian, leads the lovable band of losers. Carrey isn't actually in the film very much, but adopts an amusing voice pitched somewhere between Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel.

Unbeknownst to David, his friend turned nemesis Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) blames Kick-Ass for the death of his ganglord father and vows to be the world's first supervillain. Upon the death of his mother in a tanning bed accident, Chris makes a costume from her old bondage gear and dubs himself The Mother Fucker in a bit of Oedipal weirdness that's like an "Arrested Development" joke on crystal meth. Chris assembles various psychopaths and gives them crazy alter egos, most memorably Mother Russia (bodybuilder Olga Kurkulina), a former KGB female bruiser who could be the immovable object to Hit-Girl's irresistible force.

Hit-Girl, however, has hung up the cape and nunchucks, put aside her murderous training and tries to be an ordinary high school girl. She falls under the sway of a clutch of popular mean girls (lead by Claudia Lee's Brooke), who speak in such Heathers-esque stylized dialogue that they sound practically inhuman. When Brooke does her cheerleader tryout to the song "Pussy Drop," or when Kick-Ass has sex with teammate Night Bitch in a bathroom stall, you might suspect that Kick-Ass 2 has major issues with women and sexuality. (And the film actually tempers the events of its source material by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.)

Pitched between some ghastly caricatures of femininity, Hit-Girl still manages to come across a strong, reasonably credible character. Even more than the last film, Moretz gives a witty, sensitive performance to the point that you wish the film focused on an empowerment fable about her along the lines of the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV series. If Hit-Girl can carry two movies, why can't DC Comics get a Wonder Woman feature film made?

Jeff Wadlow takes over directing duties from Matthew Vaughn, who helmed and co-wrote the previous film. At times, the script makes feints toward challenging the superhero/revenge movie archetypes, particularly when Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass consider repudiating vengeance to end the cycle of violence. Such a twist would be genuinely risky, and Kick-Ass 2 instead opts for the orgiastic conflicts of Hollywood action vehicles.

I'm the last purpose to decry orgiastic action scenes. The best moments of both Kick-Ass movies deliver exhilarating brawls and shoot-outs. When Colonel Stars and Stripes leads Justice Forever to bust up a gangland poker game, under a hip cover of "When the Saints Go Marching In," Kick-Ass 2 reaches exactly the level of splashy pop energy it strives for. Unfortunately too many of the other set pieces look cheap and graceless, as if Wadlow's struggling with budgetary shortcomings.

It's no wonder that Carrey felt awkward about Kick-Ass 2, given its so-so execution of a mixed-up message. Given Hollywood's addiction to superhero movies and the country's ongoing debate over real-world violence, a film that attempts to move the argument one way or another is long overdue. Neither willing to critique the genres nor address the realities, Kick-Ass 2 seems caught the middle of changing from its superhero tights to its civilian clothes.

Kick-Ass 2
. 2 stars. Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow. Stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz. Opens Fri., Aug. 16. At area theaters.

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