Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Movie Review: Kick-Ass 2
The most endearing thing about the Kick-Ass films to me is that despite all the the appearance of cynical subversion and deconstruction, it's deep down one of the most honest and optimistically childlike superhero series out there. It's in many ways the bipolar opposite of its bitter, unpleasant source material. For all the violence, debauchery, and juvenile humor, ultimately the films are about an earnest if completely-out-of-his-league kid who put on a costume for the same reason Superman or Spider-man did: to help people. And unlike the comic, the movie does not mock or punish him for that simple desire. It recognizes Kick-Ass as a loser, but a loser with his heart in the right place (more or less). It transforms a story that mean-spiritedly mocked the superheroic ideal into one that celebrates it. The films truly understand the appeal of comic books, that fantasy of having the courage to get out there and do good simply because it is good, to be the guy that finally says "enough" and gets off the sidelines. Kick-Ass the movie was a Silver Age 60's comic story in the guise of a Dark Age 90's comic story.
The bad news is Kick-Ass 2 isn't as good as Kick-Ass. By design, it couldn't have possibly been as good as Kick-Ass. There were certain key elements of awesome the first Kick-Ass had that are absent this time around, and without them there's just no way to completely recapture the magic. Those elements went by the name of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, the undisputed show-stealers of the last film. The good news is that those voids have been filled by not-quite-as-awesome-but-still-pretty-awesome new stuff.
In the place of Big Daddy we now have Colonel Stars 'n Stripes, who tragically doesn't have quite as much screen time as his predecessor, but makes it count. Jim Carrey gives possibly the most uniquely un-Carrey-eque performance of his career here. Generally as an actor, Carrey only has two modes: Manic rubber-faced Ace Ventura Carrey and dower, I'm-a-serious-dramatic-actor-now Eternal Sunshine Carrey, and every role he plays is generally some slight variation of one of those two personas. But as the Colonel, Carrey reminds us all what a serious talent he can be when he puts his mind to it. Just as Nicolas Cage's Big Daddy called to mind Adam West's Batman if he decided the become the Punisher, Carrey's Colonel Stars 'n Stripes comes across as Robert de Niro trying to be Captain America. It's a startlingly chameleonic performance, and like Big Daddy it leaves you wishing he had been in more of the movie.
Now you might be confused by my earlier reference to Hit-Girl being "absent". "But Hit-Girl is in Kick-Ass 2," you might be saying, "In fact she's in it even more than she was in the first one". Well yes, a version of Hit-Girl is in Kick-Ass 2, but it's not quite the same thing. Hit-Girl was lightning in a bottle, and even with Chloe Moretz back, there's just no bringing back Hit-Girl as we knew here by simple virtue of the fact that she's too old now. The whole appeal of Hit-Girl was the transgressive, subversive image of a prepubescent girl swearing & killing people. But Moretz was 15 by the filming of Kick-Ass 2, and a 15-year-old girl swearing & killing people just doesn't have the same satirical bite as an 11-year-old girl swearing and killing people.
But like Big Daddy, a valiant effort has been made to fill the void. Instead of recasting the role to keep her 11 (and let's face it, what're the odds that your going to find another 11-year-old with the same combination of fearlessness & talent as Chloe Moretz?) or, God forbid, trying to pretend that she hasn't gone through puberty since the last movie, they instead embrace the change and do as many new and interesting things with it as possible. Fully aware of the character's immense popularity, the writers have moved her up from supporting player to secondary protagonist, with nearly half the running time devoted to her own storyline independent of Kick-Ass's. Hit-Girl, rapidly growing into a Hit-Woman, decides to honor her guardian's wishes and at least make an attempt at social assimilation at school. What could've been a show-stopping bore is made interesting by Moretz's performance and clever writing. Watching a high school girl who is both much more and much less mature than her fellow students makes for an interesting dynamic, especially when we witness the mighty super-assassin utterly terrified at the obstacles of basic social interaction and her own long-denied sexual development. The whole thing plays out as a Heathers-esque high school dark comedy, and while it's not quite as fun to watch as the rest of the movie, it holds you're attention and doesn't feel out of place.
But the real unexpected surprise is Christopher Mintz-Plasse as "The Mother Fucker". Not since Loki in The Avengers have I seen a villain who is such a perfect combination of pathetic and truly menacing. Choosing his blunt moniker after donning his dead mother's BDSM garb in the most understated joke of the movie, the former "Red Mist" from the first film goes on a chaotic revenge rampage in retaliation for Kick-Ass killing his mobster dad. The film derives endless humor from what an inept bastard the character is, especially a brilliant inversion of the most infamously misogynist scene of the book. But the character remains threatening as well for precisely the same reason: he's a bitter, out-of-control idiot with unlimited resources and an army of trained killers at his command. He's a loose cannon that can be alternately comical or terrifying, whatever the situation calls for.
The main flaw the film has is occasional confusion of tones, especially at the end when it tries to sum up the movies themes only to immediately contradict itself. The writers sometimes try to make these movies "about" something other than a teenage power fantasy with a healthy dose of superheroic optimism, which rarely works out. But despite that, the movie is consistently entertaining, and more or less captures the same spirit as the original, making up for its shortcomings with unique strengths of its own. In a summer that has seemingly been a war between light-hearted fun (Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim, The Fast & the Furious 6) and cynical, convoluted downers (Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger), Kick-Ass 2 is definitely on the side of the former.