Different Sheep, Same Clothing
Well, civilisation continued and the weather was sort of nice, so off I went to see Kick-Ass 2, written and directed by Jeff Wadlow (director of... well... nothing you've ever heard of, probably), taking over the reins from Matthew Vaughn. Now, just to recap, I thought the 2010 original was enjoyable on some levels but not without some problematic elements: a well-made film, but I couldn't shake the sense that this was ultimately quite a cynical exercise.
News that Kick-Ass 2 was coming along at all was a bit of a surprise to me, the further revelation that Jim Carrey was attempting to distance himself from the project (having apparently had a Damascene moment as far as the violence was concerned) somehow less so. I even made a few predictions to myself as to exactly what the sequel would be like: a built-up role for Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit-Girl, even more OTT violence and other 'shocking' content, and underneath it all a much more straightforward superhero story than the makers would be prepared to admit to. So what kind of shape were my precognitive powers in?
Well. Two years on from the events of the first film (I suspect this is the minimum gap the makers can get away, given they have to acknowledge the fact that Moretz visibly looks older), Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) resumes his activities as barely-competent masked crimefighter Kick-Ass, mainly out of boredom. He hopes to team up with the much more lethal Hit-Girl (Moretz), but she is struggling to honour a promise to her deceased father that she will try to live a normal life.
As Hit-Girl tries to fit in amongst the lip-gloss and boy-band obsessed harpies at the local high school, Kick-Ass is forced to look elsewhere for support, finding it in the form of Justice Forever, a low-budget superhero team led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (Carrey), an unhinged born-again Christian, and incorporating such legendary heroes as Insect-Man, Doctor Gravity and Night-Bitch. However, where there are superheroes there are bound to be supervillains, and' – still smarting from the death of his own father' – Dave's old associate Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has abandoned his heroic identity as the Red Mist and adopted the villainous guise of... actually, his supervillain name is much too rude for me to include in a civic-minded review. Check Wikipedia if you must.
As you may have been able to tell, I went into Kick-Ass 2 fully-braced for the kind of sequel which slimes the memory of the original film: you know, the RoboCop 2 or Predator 2 kind of sequel. Given what a ticklish balancing act the first film largely succeeded at, the fact that Kick-Ass 2 isn't a complete train-wreck must qualify as some sort of an achievement.
If I say that this is a film which is wildly variable in terms of its tone and contains some really problematic material, well, you could say all that about the first one, too. It initially looks like the movie is going to be about messed-up kids looking for a father figure (portraits of the two dead fathers from the first film feature prominently), but this never completely materialises. Then for a while it looks like the film is instead going to take as its theme the need for belonging and companionship' – Hit-Girl tries to find it amongst the 'normal', if obnoxious, cool girls at her school, while Kick-Ass achieves it (for a while) amongst a group of fellow aspiring superheroes. This is quite interesting, but the pay-off is awkward (I'll come back to this).
In the end, though, the film boils down to the same uneasy mixture of knowing jokes about comics conventions (Chris's tendency to give his underlings spectacularly non-PC supervillain codenames is particularly droll), gross-out slapstick comedy, sentimental drama and graphic violence, often in unsettling proximity to each other. One minute there's a fairly repugnant punchline about projectile vomiting and diarrhea, the next it seems to be trying to be Watchmen' – it's all very disconcerting. And, as I expected, everything seems to have been turned up a few notches. Particularly difficult, I thought, was a scene in the second half of the film, which begins as an attack on one of Kick-Ass's female friends, played straight. It concludes with an attempted rape, which is played for laughs. Yup, you read that right: an attempted rape, which is played for laughs.
The film lost me at that point and never quite got me back. I'm not saying sexual violence can't be the subject of fiction, but incorporating it into what's ultimately a knockabout superhero comedy-drama really leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Because that's what Kick-Ass 2 is' – by its conclusion it looks much more like a 'straight' superhero film than its predecessor ever did. But it also seems to be having its cake and eating it, based mainly on whether or not a given character is supposed to be cool or not: most of the superheroes and villains in this film are vaguely ludicrous sociopaths and inadequates (and Jim Carrey, by the way, gives one of his better performances, whatever his misgivings about the movie). They are ridiculous and no sane person would want to imitate them. Yet, at the climax of the film, Hit-Girl's decision to revive her costumed identity is presented as an affirmatory moment, an epiphany: this is who she is supposed to be!
As I say, if you take it seriously, Kick-Ass 2 is a tonally and thematically inconsistent and frequently difficult film. In terms of my predictions, I was pleasantly surprised that Hit-Girl didn't completely dominate the story, but it is more extreme than the first one, presumably to cover the fact that it's arguably more conventional, too. Wadlow's direction is decent, if not up to Vaughn's standard, most of the performances are fine, and the drama and action are actually well-mounted and engaging. However, while the door is left the tiniest bit ajar for a further installment, I would really think hard before attempting it. There's a limit to how far you can successfully push a concept like Kick-Ass, and this film looks like it's hard up against that limit already. Thanks, but enough.