There is stuff to like in Kick-Ass 2, you just need a really high tolerance for abysmal tonal inconsistencies.
I’m not going to bury the lead here, folks, Kick-Ass 2 is worse than Kick-Ass. If you didn’t like Kick-Ass for whatever reason, you will hate Kick-Ass 2, that much I can guarantee. I loved the first Kick-Ass, it was one of my favourite films of 2010, after all, and I can sit here and comfortably tell you that Kick-Ass 2 is inferior to the original in almost every single regard. But is it at least a good movie? Let’s face it, Summer 2013 has suuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked for the big blockbusters and, quite frankly, at this point I will start taking “good enough” over yet another suck-fest or giant disappointment. So, does Kick-Ass 2 meet those relatively low standards? Well… it’s a film of two halves. Except that one of those halves is also a film of two halves… which makes this a film of three thirds- SHUT UP, YOU’RE RUINING MY ANALOGY!
Plot wise, we’re a while removed from Kick-Ass with Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) having hung up his cape but bored with his life and Mindy (Chloë Grace Moretz) spending her school-days training in secret in order to honour her promise to her deceased dad to protect the city they all live in. Kick-Ass himself has inspired many other ‘normal’ people to don costumes and look after the streets and it’s this movement that inspires Dave to put the costume back on and join up with other heroes; at roughly the same time that Mindy has to ditch hers and start going through high school like a normal girl; at roughly the same time that Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) finally starts plotting his revenge for Kick-Ass blowing up Chris’ dad by donning a new outfit, renaming himself “The Motherfucker” and assembling an army of evil villains to take over the city.
These seem like a lot of tonally different plates to be spinning. Dave’s story is ripe with the fish-out-of-water exaggerated comedy that the first half of the original Kick-Ass had in spades, Chris’ story lunges between pitch-black humour and stakes-raising whilst Mindy’s story (and I kid you not here) is pretty much Carrie but with projectile vomit and defecation instead of telekinetic murder. Admittedly these different plots never do quite coalesce in a way that makes it feel like they should all come together in the end, but it is to the film’s credit that the tone throughout each of these separate threads is consistent throughout for the first half. It’s a nice, light and breezy action-comedy that brushes up against the possibility of nastiness without ever actually fully indulging in it and occasionally has some nice violence to let you chuckle at. A crowd-pleaser, essentially, just one that’s a lot less violent and a lot less funny that the original (whereas that original was often hysterical, this one is, at most, chucklesome).
Director Jeff Wadlow, who also wrote the screenplay and comes to us previous of Never Back Down, does a good job of keeping things moving along at a decent pace and has a good eye for shooting fight scenes (but not moving vehicles, as evidenced by a motorcycle sequence shot in a way that you could replicate by attaching a camera to an excitable puppy that gets distracted by shiny objects and letting him loose in a shiny objects store) but his work here is often lacking in visual pop and artistic flair. The original Kick-Ass, directed by Matthew Vaughn of X-Men: First Class and who keeps dropping out of more projects than Guillermo Del Toro, had style coming out of every orifice with an ability to make character exposition look interesting. Here, though, that style never really arrives, save for a short sequence with Chris brainstorming supervillain alter-egos for his cohorts. Instead, Kick-Ass 2 settles for looking like your bog-standard action comedy. Just with more slow-motion. Lots and lots of egregious slow-motion. And cheap CG. Really cheap CG (no, they have not improved the green-screening on the van sequence since the trailer, not in the slightest).
On the acting front, though, things are still great. Aaron Taylor-Johnson slips back into the leading man, and fake American accent, with ease, always managing to keep Dave himself likable even when he’s kind of being a dick. Chloë Grace Moretz continues to excel as Mindy and is more than capable of handling Mindy’s newer, broader material whilst still keeping the character the Hit Girl we recognise and love. Jim Carrey manages to make an impression, if nothing else, as Colonel Stars And Stripes, even though his character gets pretty much nothing to do. The standout, though, surprisingly, is Christopher Mintz-Plasse who is utterly fantastic as Chris. He’s able to take a character with whom the script can’t decide if he’s crazily-pathetic or psychotically-monstrous and turn in a show-stealing performance of a try-too hard villain who is only sometimes as capably evil as he thinks he is. Mintz-Plasse rescues that character single-handedly and runs away with the film as a result; I really hope he tries more such roles in the future.
So, yeah, for about 51 minutes of its 103 minute run-time, Kick-Ass 2 is “good enough”. It’s not as funny as the original, it’s not as inventive as the original and it’s most definitely not memorable, but it is a good, solid crowd-pleaser with great performances from its game cast. That should be it, right?
Then the second half kicks in.
See, at the halfway point, the film decides that it wants to (to use a phrase that I despise) have its cake and eat it too. It wants to establish that sh*t has gotten real and goes to very large lengths to make Chris/The Motherfucker a credible villain who you want to see die horribly, so in comes the shock-value! The problems with this approach are two-fold. For one, the film never commits to its shock-value and always wusses out. We’re told a major character has been decapitated, but we never actually see anyone perform the act. Any potential power that That Scene (readers of the comic will know exactly what I mean by that) could have had is instantly drained because, instead of actually having Chris do That Thing, they make it lead up to one really unfunny gag that landed with such a dud the most laughter you could hear in my theatre came from nervous chuckles from people who weren’t certain as to whether they were supposed to find it funny or not. Whether or not the film is better or worse off for changing That Scene is a matter of personal taste (I’m relieved at the sentiment, if nothing else) but Kick-Ass 2’s complete refusal to just go all-in on the shock makes it feel toothless. Like this stuff is there only because it needs to be and the film’s heart is just not in it.
And for two, in addition to wussing out on the shock, the film attempts to undermine the shock at almost every opportunity. Kick-Ass only became deadly serious for a few sequences but those were played dead straight for dramatic effect. Big Daddy’s cold-blooded massacre of an entire warehouse full of goons is terrifying because the film doesn’t attempt to undermine it by playing an ironic music cue or having its characters quip whilst the act is taking place. Kick-Ass 2 has a similar sequence of cold-blooded murder, involving Mother Russia taking on a squadron of police officers, but chooses instead to back it with an ironic version of the Soviet-Russian national anthem and have its characters quip about pay grades whilst this is going on. It contrasts badly with the carnage on display and is appallingly at odds with That Scene which occurs not 10 seconds earlier.
This sort of thing continues throughout the remaining 50 minutes, trying to raise the stakes with deadly serious acts whilst still trying to be the crowd-pleasing blockbuster that it started off as. This is a film that can have Chris capably have a character murdered in one scene and then, in the very next scene, have Chris bumblingly wonder what is wrong with the shark he’s keeping in the giant shark tank in his evil lair. It’s like the film is going “Hey! We’re not really going super dark and serious on you! We’re still about having fun!” And the film continues in this vein for the rest of its run time, juxtaposing serious, emotional sequences with either admittedly fun action scenes (the van sequence, despite some appalling CG, is badass and the final showdown is pretty great) or really, really bad jokes. It actually starts to feel really mean-spirited towards the end because the film never recovers the crowd-pleasing feel, which made me wonder what the point of all of that shock in the middle was for if it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Imagine going for dinner with a few friends and it’s all nice and light-hearted and good fun, then one of them suddenly pulls out a machete and mercilessly stabs two of your friends in the back before cheerily attempting to make the mood of the meal go back to how it was before they murdered two of your friends. “It’s OK! I didn’t really mean it! We were just having some fun, weren’t we?” Yeah? It’s like that.
In the end, Jeff Waldow’s inability to juggle the conflicting tones is what proves to be Kick-Ass 2’s undoing. It takes a script that’s far more capable than the one presented here to not make the finished product an uncomfortable and tonally inconsistent mess. For the first 50 minutes, though still a major step-down from the original, Kick-Ass 2 is serviceable entertainment that’s good fun. The rest of the film, however, is an inconsistent mess that inadvertently comes off as very mean-spirited towards everyone involved and some great performances and entertaining action sequences can’t save the film from that, I’m afraid.