Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Cinema File #239: "Kick Ass 2" Review

Alan Moore’s seminal comic book mini-series The Watchmen explored for really the first time what it would be like if superheroes and costumed vigilantes existed in something close to the real world. In Moore’s alternate history, kids don’t read comic books about superheroes, because they have no need to indulge in a fantasy about something so commonplace (they read about pirates). Mark Millar’s Kick Ass series is a radically different approach to the same idea, in a world much closer to our own where superheroes started out as comic book fictions, only to inspire the fans who loved them to put on their own masks. My only real problem with the original Kick Ass film was the removal of a third act twist from the comic that I felt added an extra layer of complexity to one of the film’s most interesting characters, but other than that it was a perfectly entertaining action comedy and certainly much more faithful to the source material than the previous Millar adaptation Wanted. Its sequel Kick Ass 2, while tonally much different, is a worthy successor that expands upon what made the first one so good in pretty much every way.

Kick Ass 2 finds the titular amateur crime fighter getting back into the game after a few years off, joining a team of heroes inspired by his example while his former ally and would be mentor Hit Girl tries to live a normal life, and his arch enemy The Red Mist takes on a new identity in an effort to become the world’s first super-villain. The movie follows the lead of The Dark Knight in addressing the problem of escalation, dealing with the fallout of one man setting an extreme precedent by going beyond the law to combat crime, but here it is done through the same hyper stylized and almost wacky lens of the original, with very little time spent on meditating over grander themes or harsh realities. If anything, I’d say that Kick Ass 2 feels even more like a comic book movie than the first one, its characters and situations far more over the top, and the action sequences presenting far more implausible feats performed by supposed regular Joes. With Kick Ass’s transition from a wannabe to a full fledged hero already covered in the first movie, the juxtaposition between the naive fantasy and the brutal reality of a superhero lifestyle is diminished somewhat, but thankfully its replaced by a gleeful uptick in bloody carnage, essentially extending the inspired insanity of the last film’s jet-pack propelled climax to almost every action sequence in this new installment

In expanding the roster of heroes, Kick Ass 2 seems to have taken a cue from the real life superhero movement, where normal people in masks and costumes form teams that act more as neighborhood watch/community service organizations than vigilante groups. In real life, these crime fighters typically call the police before ever taking the law into their own hands, but because that would make for a pretty boring movie, here they enact justice with baseball bats and taser batons. Their leader is Captain Stars And Stripes, an ex-mafia enforcer turned born again Christian with the power of a testicle biting dog played with slack jawed abandon by Jim Carrey in a role very reminiscent of his earlier manic work. The voice didn’t match up, but the insane grin on his face made me wonder if this character might just be Fire Marshal Bill before the accident. He’s delightful from start to finish, and ironically enough considering his highly publicized criticism of the movie’s gun violence in the wake of Sandy Hook, his character represents an action hero who goes out of his way to avoid guns. The only problem is he’s not in the movie nearly as much as the trailers would suggest, basically just long enough to leave you wanting more. After his breakout performance in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone earlier this year, seeing him almost wasted in what amounts to an extended cameo was a bit disheartening.

The stand out is easily Christopher Mintz-Plasse, which is really saying something when you’re talking about a movie featuring Chloe Grace Moretz returning to the role that made her famous. With the absence of Mark Strong’s cliché action movie Mafioso, Plasse comes into his own as The Motherfucker, a BDSM leather clad super villain with the superpower of “being rich as shit” and paying hardcore criminals to play dress up with him. He manages to walk a very fine line by being an inept comic villain that is still able to establish himself as a genuine threat. It is his dorky enthusiasm and lack of common sense that makes him unpredictable and dangerous, not to mention incredibly fun to watch. Moretz is still great as Hit Girl, though admittedly seeing her grown up takes some of the novelty out of the character, and I didn’t quite buy her emotional arc of trying to live a normal life, though I can’t argue with the literally explosive way that storyline wraps up. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is as blank and unassuming as the last movie, but I think that works for this character, who may often seem like a bystander in his own movie, but also serves as a proxy for the audience.

I lost count of how many times someone pointed out that the events of the film were “not a comic book,” and that this was “real life” where choices have real consequences. That the film ends just like a comic book with an epic battle between two costumed armies is beside the point; my issue is that this is exactly the same lesson from the last film, just presented in a style that’s even more cartoonish and thus less believable. Don’t get me wrong, I actually prefer this style for this kind of story, and the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of a lot of sequels where main characters have to forget everything they learned in the previous movie so they can learn the same lessons over again, but in order to present a familiar conflict, Kick Ass 2 spends a lot of time sidelining its main characters altogether so it can introduce a whole new crop of amateurs who weren’t around to learn the lessons of the first film, when I would have much preferred a completely different conflict instead. Expanding the real world superhero into the real world superhero team is the natural progression for this story and its done well, but sometimes it feels like it is at the expense of development for the characters we already know and love.

Because the film strays from some of the realistic touches of the first one in favor of a more exaggerated style, many might consider Kick Ass 2 to be inferior, but for me, I feel the new more outrageous and off kilter sensibility works a lot better. Though we lose the visceral impact of a comic book nerd’s superhero fantasy straining against the harsh reality of crime fighting with every broken bone, now our heroes are more established and professional, to the point where the broken bones mean something else entirely. The first Kick Ass was about a hero being born, and this new one is about that same hero coming into his own, so here we trade birth pains for the silly awkwardness of growing up. Just as the main plot deals with escalation, so too does Kick Ass 2 represent an escalation from its predecessor, just slightly surpassing what was already a great movie, and all in all it more than lives up to the promise of its title. Also, make sure to keep an eye out for a blink and you’ll miss it, laugh out loud cameo from Nic Cage, and evidently a post-credit sequence that I apparently missed by walking out too soon.

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