Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review - Kick-Ass 2

We've had enough superhero movies over the past decade or so that the inevitable burn-out has begun to set in. However, 2010's Kick-Ass offered a bit of a novel take on the sub-genre. Directed by Matthew Vaughan from Mark Millar's comic series, the movie depicted the consequences of what would actually happen if people tried to become superheroes in the real world, or at least a world relatively close to our own. It was a neat idea somewhat blunted by that movie's third act, when it slipped away from reality and dove into the type of colorful comic book insanity it had seemed eager to satirize initially.

Three years later the eagerly-awaited sequel, with writer/director Jeff Wadlow taking over for Vaughan, doesn't just slip away from reality, it lights it on fire and gleefully chucks it out the window without a backward glance. But instead of embracing the hyperbolic tone of your average superhero movie, Wadlow takes the film's characters, or a loose approximation of them, and sets them adrift in a bad farce about cosplayers assaulting each other.

Important note: there's virtually no way I can discuss the plot and effectiveness of this movie without bringing up some spoilers regarding the original film so if you have plans to see it and have not yet done so, you may want to skip this review for now.

The saga of clumsy superhero Kick-Ass, aka Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor), and ruthless anti-heroine Hit-Girl, aka Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz), continues with both having resolved to hang up their tights and transition back into civilian life. But their retirement is half-hearted at best; Mindy wavers between living up to the example of her deceased vigilante father Big Daddy (played in the original by Nicolas Cage) and keeping her promise to her sensible legal guardian (Morris Chestnut, taking over for Omari Hardwick) to give up the mask and be a normal teenage girl. Meanwhile Dave, bored with merely watching the would-be heroes inspired by his example, grows eager to get back into the game and joins up with a team of heroes led by born-again avenger Sgt. Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey).

But none of them realize that their days of going after mere street criminals have come to an end, as Chris D-Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), son of the mobster our heroes blew up in the first movie, re-invents himself as the world's first real supervillain, the Mother-F****r (this is a PG-rated blog and I'd like to keep it that way). D'Amico uses his mafia wealth to put together an army of costumed henchmen and women to terrorize the city and get his revenge on Kick-Ass.

Putting it charitably, Kick-Ass 2 is a mess. Wadlow's script is a jumble of ideas and plot threads that almost feels like a first draft, or to be more accurate, several early drafts that have been haphazardly stitched together by someone who doesn't have a strong grasp on the wit and heart that made the original work. Instead the screenplay flails about trying to find something new to say before finally settling into a series of clumsy fight scenes as two-dimensional as the pages they sprang from. Before I get into some of the script's oddly mismatching aspects, let's get into some of the thematic conflicts.

The takeaway of the first film seemed to be how the superhero mask functions as a badge of insanity, suggesting only neurotic or outright demented people would attempt to set themselves up as comic-book characters. That mental instability encompassed Dave's fanboy-inspired delusions, Mindy's sociopathic demeanor and her father's psychotic quest for revenge. This time out there is no acknowledgement of how questionable a lifestyle choice it is. Whereas it made clear that Dave's efforts to play hero were foolish and generally ineffectual and that Mindy's persona as Hit-Girl was the result of a diseased and abusive upbringing by her father, here we're expected to accept their heroism as a noble, empowering pursuit.

Wadlow makes halfhearted efforts to connect the superhero concept to various ideas without ever really committing to anything. We see elements of the BDSM lifestyle (D'Amico uses his mother's S&M gear as his supervillain costume) and self-help methodology (a meeting of the superhero team turns into a quasi-support group, with each hero explaining their tortured origin story) touched on, but most of all superheroics seems to function as a metaphor for teen social roles, as Dave comments on how being a superhero equates to membership in the most exclusive clique imaginable and his geek friends become eager to get in on the action once it becomes trendy, while D'Amico sees supervillainy as a chance to define himself in from the shadow of the father he's trying to avenge. Meanwhile both the heroes and villains use social media to challenge each other, though the integration of social networking into crime-fighting is again something handled better in the original.

While Dave's journey was at the center of the first film, we get the strong sense Wadlow isn't all that interested in him since so much of his character is completely glossed over or feels inconsistent with what we've seen before. One of his primary motivations in the first film was winning the heart of his attractive classmate Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). Their relationship is featured here just long enough to get rid of it, something that Dave barely even reacts to. His decision to return to the crime-fighting life that nearly got him killed feels perfunctory, motivated by little more than boredom clumsily conveyed in a quick, lazy montage. Even his voice-overs, previously used to offer self-aware commentary on his fumbling efforts, are now just tools to deliver exposition and baldly state what few thematic ideas the film attempts.

Wadlow also manages to botch the most potentially interesting plotline left over from the original: how will Hit-Girl fare as she attempts to function in a high school environment? Forced to socialize with other girls her age, Mindy finds herself thrust into a world of makeovers and boy bands for which she has no context. Initially, it also seems like Wadlow might be trying to dramatize the problems faced by the modern geek girl in a society that seems determined to squeeze her into gender roles that do not fit, certainly a worthy subject to investigate. Unfortunately, the way this plotline plays out reinforces those gender roles instead of challenging them. In Wadlow's conception, the only other form of teen girls in existence are the bitchy, vapid variety that populate Heathers and Mean Girls. There are no other geeky young women with whom Mindy can associate and there isn't even a suggestion she might hang out in Dave's social circle, where her references to comic-book legend Stan Lee would have more impact than they do with her newfound companions.

It also feels like a betrayal of the character to see her nervous unease around her new classmates; this is a girl who has shown no hesitation about wading into a gunfight and has never been intimidated by anyone. It doesn't wash that she would suddenly be worried about impressing her high school peers. There's an interesting attempt to show how she relies on the Hit-Girl persona to get through it, using her martial-arts training to get through a dance try-out, but even this seems to reinforce how stacked the deck is against the idea of Mindy living a normal life. The only way for Mindy to be true to herself is to kill a bunch of people and accept the identity her father has created for her, leaving Wadlow to resolve Mindy's high school issues with idiotic vomit and defecation humor. Easily the break-out star of the original film, Moretz does what she can with the muddled direction the script takes her character, but the shock of a cursing, ass-kicking young girl was worn off and we get little to replace it.

The other dangling plotline from the original is Chris' quest for revenge. Initially portrayed as a troubled teen struggling to earn his father's respect and lacking the bloodthirsty aptitude for the family business, any dimension that existed for the character has been effectively flattened to provide broad comedy. He's too pathetically inept and thick-headed to seem to be much of a credible threat and is consequently pretty uninteresting, leaving Mintz-Plasse to recycle the smirking nastiness of his Evil Ed character from Fright Night for a character who would feel more at home in the zany silliness of Mystery Men if his conception wasn't so mean-spirited.

The absence of Nicolas Cage, so brilliantly hilarious as Mindy's revenge-minded dad in the first film, is keenly felt, a problem reflected by the number of slow zoom-ins we get to his empty Big Daddy suit here. Cage seemed to serve as the personification for the original's insanity and as soon as he exited the film that strange tonal shift spread to infect the rest of that movie. In his place, we get Jim Carrey's Sgt. Stars and Stripes. I still like Carrey and felt his gleefully obnoxious turn in Burt Wonderstone earlier this year was a return to form. So I'm a bit surprised as how little an impact he has here. Suggestions that the character was a mob enforcer who somehow saw the light and the conception of him as an alternate father figure for Dave are left to wither and die, leaving the character as little more than a goofy thug with an overdone accent.

Also sadly missed is Mark Strong, who played villainous mobster Frank D'Amico in the original and offered the very relatable perspective of annoyed disbelief at having to deal with these costumed freaks. In his place, Chris gets a new father figure in the form of John Leguizamo as Javier, his mob bodyguard and the enabler for his villainous obsession. Leguizamo admirably plays it straight and ends up as one of the few characters in the movie to feel like a real person, the other notable one being Chestnut as Marcus, Mindy's concerned guardian. It's frustrating that both characters' efforts to get their youthful charges to act like normal people are arbitrarily dismissed.

That brings up the point of how, despite Hit-Girl's presence, the film seems very male-centric and arguably a bit chauvinist. The story seems to focus on characters attempting to keep promises and preserve the legacies of father figures, with virtually no maternal presence offered. The only notable exception is Chris' shrill mother who is quickly and gruesomely disposed of as a joke. The most prominent female characters introduced this time out are Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), who's physically intimidating but otherwise more cartoony than a Bond henchman/woman, and Night Bitch (Lindy Booth), who seems to primarily serve as a half-hearted new romantic interest for Dave and as a target for threats of rape and assault, a situation which disgustingly becomes the set-up for a joke and the ramifications of which are tossed aside for convenience. The harsh consequences to heroics that the first film focused on have all but disappeared here.

I mentioned the script's confusion, and taken as a whole it really feels as though no one was paying attention to either the continuity with the original film or even internal consistency. First of all, we have two main characters who ping-pong between returning to their costumed identities and swearing them so often it becomes hard to remember which point each is at. Then there are curious moments such as an early scene where Dave asks Mindy how she deals with the threat of death, which is framed in such as a way that it appears everyone forgot how close Dave himself came to getting killed in the first film. Not to mention the inconsistency of Mindy's storyline, as she goes from being super-popular one moment to being, appropriately enough, a Carrie-like pariah the next. Or a scene in which she impulsively asks a boy on a date, followed up by a scene where that same guy comments that she finally agreed to his asking her out. It's all very patchwork and screams of mid-production rewrites or perhaps just sloppiness.

We also gain a stronger appreciation for the visual panache that Vaughan gave the original. Everything here looks incredibly flat and lifeless. The action sequences are all lazily conceived; even the van chase featured so prominently in the trailers uses so much bad green-screen and CGI effects that it becomes as much cartoon as anything else.

Based on the box-office and critical reception, there's a good chance that this will be the last entry in the fledgling franchise and I sincerely hope that's the case. While the original carefully tread the line between fun and distasteful, getting more of the smugly unpleasant direction the series has taken into would only sully Vaughan's first film more. I think it's time the creators of Kick-Ass heeded Dave and Mindy's first instinct and hang up the capes and tights for good.

Ok, so thus endeth the review, now begins the discussion. What did you think? Agree? Disagree? Did I miss something worth mentioning? Leave your comments below.

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