Film Review: Kick-Ass 2

Has this somewhat belated sequel recaptured the mad magic of its predecessor? Not exactly. But watching Chloë Grace Moretz’s Hit Girl, well, kick ass is still a blast.

While anticipating the sequel to a film that took everybody by (mostly) happy surprise, one is usually wise to proceed with expectations lowered. That’s especially true with the sequel to a film like Kick-Ass, which owed so much of its success to the very elements that made it such a surprise. Because as sequels from Rocky II to Ocean’s Twelve have shown us, it’s not so easy to be surprising twice.

That’s the built-in challenge for Kick-Ass 2, which is in the difficult position of following up a film that just plain caught lightning in a bottle. We’re not just talking about the dynamic genre mash-up that swerved from raunchy high-school outcast comedy to post-Tarantino, comic book-derived, revenge-stoked action fantasy. What we’re really talking about is the spectacle of then 11-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz, in Lone Ranger mask and purple wig, all sweetness and hardcore swear words as she cartwheeled, flipped and flew through the air, shooting, stabbing and strangling several dozen scumbags, like some mini-ninja killing machine out of an alternative John Woo universe. Unfortunately for Kick Ass 2, Moretz isn’t 11 anymore. And though she (and her stunt doubles) can still deliver some spectacular Kill Bill-worthy moves—and she does still own the screen in every scene she’s in—it just isn’t the same coming from a longer, lankier, almost-woman. How could it be?

So no, KA2’s new writer-director Jeff Wadlow (Cry Wolf, Never Back Down) hasn’t managed to sustain the same level of dark and edgy yet cheeky and spoofy entertainment. But this is not to say that he hasn’t given it a good, honest heartfelt try. And if you were to have read this sequel’s treatment, you’d probably have agreed with whoever greenlighted it—problematic plot turns and all. Even when KA2 is going a little wrong, you can see how it could have gone right.

The new film starts right about where the old one left off: on the front steps of the local high school where Dave, aka Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is now a confident upperclassman and Mindy, aka Hit Girl, is a lowly freshman. With his social life now in a good place, Dave is itching to up his superhero skill-set from barely capable to Hit Girl level, and Mindy reluctantly agrees to be his sensei. This arrangement lasts until they take to the streets for a test drive which ends badly and gets Mindy grounded, leaving Dave to go it alone on night patrols. You know, just like the old days.

But not for long. Enter Colonel Stars and Stripes (an almost unrecognizable Jim Carrey), leader of a ragtag band of self-appointed superheroes who’ve been inspired by the urban legend Kick-Ass has become. As wannabe worshippers to the original wannabe, they are this film’s running joke. It runs on too long (as in right up to the end), with not enough payoff. This half-baked Justice League just doesn’t fumble and stumble in ways that haven’t already been covered at length by Kick-Ass himself—not to mention any number of earlier movie and TV would-be superheroes, going back over the decades. Not even Carrey, eschewing his usual improvisational razzle-dazzle in favor of a gruff and growly one-note characterization, can do much to freshen things up.

But as the first film did, this one perks up whenever Mindy is the center of attention—even without the mask, wig and heavy artillery. Trying to fit in at her new school, she immediately becomes the target of the campus Queen Bee (Claudia Lee) and her bitch minions. In effect, this puts Mindy in the place Dave occupied in the first film—but even here there’s not enough of a payoff. We’re led to expect more from a mean-girl storyline that vividly, even poignantly addresses the hot topic of school bullying. What we get is a conflict that gets resolved with a way over-the-top instance of Farrelly-inspired gastrointestinal payback. The imagery is reminiscent of opened fire hydrants. And the worst thing about this set-piece? It’s just not Hit Girl’s style.

From that gross extreme, Kick Ass 2 mood-swings to some tender domestic moments, most of them involving Mindy’s foster dad (Morris Chestnut), who just wants her to have a real childhood. (Um, too late, Foster Dad). From there, Wadlow veers a little farther off-track, killing off a few secondary characters who get caught in the crossfire when self-styled evil villain Chris D’Amico, aka Mother F***er (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), comes gunning for Kick-Ass, to avenge the death of his mob-boss dad (see Kick Ass 1). These not-completely-unexpected sacrifices are meant to pluck sad notes on our heartstrings, while jacking up the odds against our heroes. But the notes are more sour than sad, and they seem a tad gratuitous. They’re the kind of miscalculation that tends to come with the sort of fast-and-loose, hit-and-miss, throw-it-all-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach. That Wadlow only manages mixed results just makes what Matthew Vaughn did in the first film seem all the more impressive. Vaughn threw it all against the wall too. But everything stuck.

Still, the upside to all those grisly crimes against the good guys is that they help coax teenage Hit Girl out of early retirement—which is the occasion not only for an eyeball-spinning, high-speed, hanging-off-the-side-of the truck slugfest with enough faceless thugs to populate an early Bruce Lee vehicle, but also for the ultimate smackdown that you just knew was coming: Hit Girl vs. the cartoonishly musclebound super-henchwoman Mother Russia (real-life bodybuilder Olga Kurkulina)—a sort of cross between Dolph Lundgren and a Transformer. The inevitable outcome gets a very cool tweak, with a veiled nod to Popeye the Sailor.

So yes, Kick-Ass 2 does have its share of winkingly subversive humor. It also takes care to honor the emotional connections that the first Kick-Ass established for anyone who was paying attention. But in case someone wasn’t, let us now take a moment to point out that Nicolas Cage’s performance as Hit Girl’s Big Daddy featured his most motivated scenery-chewing in years—and that the bond between Big Daddy and Hit Girl was, in its own weird way, that film’s emotional driving force. Which was just another of its nice surprises.

This sequel goes out of its way to milk those lingering emotions for leftover sentimental value. But often enough, that strategy works, almost as well as intended. Which keeps us wholly invested in Hit Girl’s journey, even though she’s already almost made it to Hit Woman. Which makes us wonder what that person would be like. Messy as it is, this film is just good enough to make us hope we get a chance to find out.