Satisfying "Kick-Ass 2" Improves On Original

Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass,” based on the comic book by Mark Millar, certainly had its moments, but it was fundamentally overwrought, abrasive, and a little too in love with itself. The film – which followed the story of a normal teenager turned superhero, inspired by the same costumed pop culture icons that exist in our world – was one prolonged wink at its audience, determined to claim the term “meta” as its own while trying to reclaim the superhero genre from the brooding pathos of Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe. An admirable goal, even more so now in the wake of the unnecessarily dark and flavorless “Man Of Steel.” But ultimately, “Kick-Ass” was little more than a nice diversion.

For “Kick-Ass 2,” Vaughn and Millar have handed the reigns over to the relatively inexperienced Jeff Wadlow (“Cry_Wolf” and “Never Back Down”) to surprisingly positive results. I was pleased to see “Kick-Ass 2” take a more grounded approach than its predecessor while still retaining its edge, and several returning cast members have stepped up their game in a big way. Aaron Taylor-Johnson returns as Dave Lizewski, the titular Kick-Ass, and seems more comfortable not being front and center this time around. With the screenplay not as Kick-Ass-centric, the rest of the cast gets some much-needed breathing room and the narrative opens up, despite a noticeably smaller budget.

The aforementioned improvements in the acting department come courtesy of Chloë Grace Moretz as Hit-Girl and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the artist formerly known as Red Mist. Moretz is simply (and understandably) a better actress than she was when she was 12. Mintz-Plasse, on the other hand, is given much juicier material this time around and seems to have a blast with it, finally making his transformation into the supervillian known as the Mother F—er.

With Hit-Girl forced into retirement by her caretaker, Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), the Mother F—er puts together a gang of criminals to avenge his father’s death, which – if you’re playing catch-up – came at the hands (read: bazooka) of Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass, unaware of the Mother F—er’s plot, or even his whereabouts, is eager to get back into the crime-fighting game, teaming up with the likes of the offbeat Dr. Gravity (a well-used Donald Faison) and the amiable Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey).

That “Kick-Ass 2” has the luxury of using Carrey against type in a small but pivotal role is a testament to the vision of Wadlow and his producers. It’s an incredibly shrewd, understated use of star power that pays dividends. It’s unfortunate that Carrey has seen fit to disown the film because of its level of violence, but his newfound concerns don’t undo the quality of his work. Colonel Stars and Stripes is actually the voice of reason amongst a rather angsty group of costumed freaks, making Carrey’s criticism of picture all the more confusing. If anything, the violence is far less gratuitous than that of its predecessor, mostly serving the story rather than the most bloodthirsty viewers. But Carrey is terrific in the role, and brings a nice shot of charisma to his handful of scenes.

Hit-Girl’s “Mean Girls”-esque high school subplot is one of the narrative’s creakier passages, but it allows her to remain a part of the film when Kick-Ass and his buddies – including a returning Clark Duke as the newly minted but amusingly unskilled superhero, Battle Guy – are out on the streets taking down thugs. The way in which Wadlow writes Kick-Ass’ other best friend, Todd, is awkward and confusing – Todd inadvertently helps the Mother F—er at one point – but since the role was recast, the filmmakers were likely left without a graceful way to utilize the character. Writing him out altogether certainly wasn’t an option.

In toning down the more obnoxious tendencies of the first film – e.g., Kick-Ass’ relentless narration – Wadlow has created a film that better straddles the line between self-awareness and self-seriousness. In turn, the film’s emotional beats are more impactful and the connections between its characters are less stilted and more relatable. Furthermore, the decrease in snarkiness actually makes the film funnier, leaving the cast to experiment with their line readings to some pretty great results, rather than struggling to keep up with the pitter patter of faux-Tarantino-esque exchanges. In the end, “Kick-Ass 2” is a more tonally consistent piece than its predecessor, and against all odds, it left me excited for “Kick-Ass 3.” Bring it on.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: August 16, 2013
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Screenwriter: Jeff Wadlow
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Morris Chestnut, John Leguizamo, Donald Faison, Jim Carrey
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, crude and sexual content, and brief nudity)