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As much as I enjoy the "Kick-Ass" films, and I unapologetically do, what I enjoy more is watching the range of reactions that people have to the movies. The first film was embraced enthusiastically by one crowd I saw it with, and roundly rejected at another screening. I've seen people get spitting mad about these movies and what they mean, and I've heard people enthuse about some truly questionable things contained in the films.
As adaptations, both movies are fascinating exercises in pushing the envelope while also playing it safe regarding a rating. I don't think there was any danger that either one of the films would have gotten an NC-17, but if you were to just treat the original comics by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. as storyboards, the thing you'd get as a result would be an NC-17 no one would bother appealing because it would so obviously deserve it. Matthew Vaughn's movie streamlined relationships and also adjusted certain choices that made Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) a much more conventionally heroic figure. For the new film, writer/director Jeff Wadlow has taken material from the comic mini-series "Kick-Ass 2" as well as material from the spin-off series "Hit Girl" and he has built very carefully off of the end of the first "Kick-Ass" film to come up with something that I think does a good job of expressing the idea that the black and white notions of heroism and villainy that comic books sell to their readers are both ridiculous and dangerous.
The first ten minutes or so of the film feel like a "Last Week On 'Kick-Ass'" style recap of the last film, just to reintroduce Dave, Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz), aka Hit-Girl. She's living with Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), one of the few people who knew the truth about her and her father Damon (Nicolas Cage) in the first film. As the movie opens, Dave and Mindy are still meeting and training together as if nothing happened. It's fun to see Mindy passing along both the lessons and the dogma that were impressed upon her by her father, but the film leaves little doubt that MIndy is a damaged person. Her father made her into an instrument of punishment, a weapon devised for one purpose, to take down Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), who had been responsible for ruining Damon's life and destroying Mindy's mother. The first film took full advantage of the cheeky shock of Hit-Girl, and the use of the "Banana Splits" theme song during her first scene in which she gleefully destroys a room full of drug dealers was a perfect expression of the strange tension at work in her iconography. She's a little girl, but a cold-blooded killer who is oddly effective, a wrecking crew in a purple wig with no moral compass at all. She had justifications and excuses and rehearsed answers passed along by her father, but she was a killer, and nothing else ever really excuses that.
Here, we see that Mindy doesn't really exist. She's doing her best to be true to her word to Marcus, but she can't just switch Hit-Girl off. She's try to be a normal teenage girl, but the glimpses we get of what "normal" means in 2013 are kind of horrifying, and there's little wonder Mindy finds herself wishing she could solve all of her problems Hit-Girl style. The lessons she tries to pass on to Dave are really all about the same thing: making him more lethal. And while Dave believes he's doing good, he's also doing his best not to be the guy who fired a rocket launcher into Chris D'Amico's father. That is such a huge image at the end of the first film, and it's played for "holy shit!" laughs in that context. When we see how Chris D'Amico is living now, wrapped up in his anger and his guilt and his shame, unable to express any of what he's left feeling to his mother, who already had denial down to an art in the first film, it's played sort of for laughs, but they're hard laughs, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse doesn't try to pretty it up. From the beginning of the film to the end, he's playing this as a weak, pathetic, furious child, armed with money and anger and nothing else. Even his supervillain name, The Motherfucker, comes across as the sort of infantile antisocial rage that only cares about shock and an immediate response. You don't call your group of bad guys the Toxic Mega Cunts if you're trying for respectability. That's a name that is designed to serve as the opening slap in a concentrated effort to upset. Chris D'Amico finds himself alone with only one person he trusts as a sounding board, a bodyguard named Javier (John Leguizamo), and I like that he pretty continuously tells Chris that every choice he makes is terrible. He calls him out on being racist. He tells him when he's being childish. And for a little while, Javier seems to be the one thing that keeps Chris from going off the deep end entirely.
The consequences of Damon's choices about Mindy, the consequences of Dave's choice to wear the costume in the first place, the consequences of killing Frank D'Amico, the consequences of being raised by a violence criminal… this new movie examines what scars are left on each of these people, and I think it's interesting that this time out, Dave is the one who finally gets his ass kicked by circumstances. Garrett Brown does nice work as Dave's father, confused by what's happening to his son but aware enough to know that he can't solve the problems for him. For a little while, Dave is lulled into believing that he has made the world a better place. After all, he meets Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), a former Mob enforcer who was born again and who now confronts criminals. They create Justice Forever, a sort of 99-cent-store Justice League, and Dave feels great about what's happened, about inspiring these people he can now work with and befriend. Donald Faison's Dr. Gravity is more touching than funny, a guy who is closer to a LARPer than a real superhero. I like that two of the heroes are just known as Tommy's Dad (Steven Mackintosh) and Tommy's Mom (Monica Dolan), and that they're doing what they're doing to avoid the grief of having lost their child. Kick-Ass even finds a girlfriend, the provocative Night Bitch (Lindy Booth), who seems to like dressing up mainly for the thrill, not out of any particular drive to justice.
In fact, most everyone in the film aside from Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl, and The Motherfucker is dressing up and doing what they're doing for entirely personal reasons, and none of them are part of the pathology that connects the main three characters. I think the relationship between Dave and Mindy is really well-drawn here, and she breaks my heart. She's alone, and she wasn't given the right training to know how to navigate being a teenager, much less a teenage girl. She recognizes the way power and strength are taken and enforced, though, and when she does finally deal with Brooke (Claudia Lee), the queen-b of the mean girls who are making Mindy's school day hell, it is a suitably sociopathic answer. It's not the "right" answer in any way, but it is the most compromised non-lethal response Mindy would be capable of, so it seems right.
And Chris D'Amico's journey is full of similar grace notes. His first "big" moment is a lame robbery of a convenience store, and it's barely even that. For him, though, it's an intentional transgression, proof that he's got the balls to do what he wants to do. He tries to train himself to fight, but he's quick to recognize that it would be easier to pay Chuck Lidell to kick the holy shit out of someone than it would be to train to be as capable of such a thing as Chuck Lidell is. Like Batman, Chris D'Amico's superpower is his money, and he's willing to spend all of it to hurt Dave Lizewski. The moments in the first film that I liked most of Chris were the ones showing how lonely his life is. I remember when I was working a retail job in the early '90s, Sage Stallone was a regular customer of ours, and there was a giant bodyguard whose job was to accompany Sage everywhere and to make sure no one could approach Sage and just start talking to him. It seemed to me to be a bizarre thing to do to a teenage kid, and Sage certainly seemed like he wished he could shop without the shadow. Chris D'Amico struck me the same way in the first film, and now, because there's no one to help him deal with what happened in the first movie, the only thing he can focus on is revenge and pain and anger.
There's one other character, a supporting turn, who really jumps off the screen this time, and that's Mother Russia. Played by real-life bodybuilder Olga Kurkulina, she's a mostly-silent bad guy hired by The Motherfucker, and when she launches into action, it's like watching that scene where the ED-209 kills the dude in the board room in "Robocop." She's so surreal, so straight-out-of-a-comic-book-freaky that I wanted to see more of her. Small wonder she is set on a collision course with Hit-Girl, since that's the battle that actually makes sense, two forces of nature turned loose on one another. The other rivalry that the film has to pay off is that between Kick-Ass and The Motherfucker, and the stakes here do not involve anything more than the personal hurt between these two. They've each lost people, and they each blame the other, and nothing that happens between them is about "justice" at all. It's about making someone else pay for how bad you feel life has treated you, and to these two guys, those stakes are bigger than anything in "Man Of Steel" or 'Star Trek Into Darkness" or "Pacific Rim."
There is one other way this film reminds me a bit of "Paciic Rim," and that is the pace of the storytelling. Both films feel like they've been cut to the bone, trimmed back from longer, more detailed films. I have no idea if they have been, but they feel that way. They feel like they're hustling through, and like things are fairly linear. There's not a lot of room for digression when telling this kind of story this way. The focus is so close, narratively, that it's pretty much full-speed ahead from the opening, and then when it's over, it's just done. Boom. Out. I feel like I could have spent more time in this movie, soaking up small behavior and details, and it would have made me like it more. I don't necessarily want a film to make a speed run through the story it's telling me, and while I understand the desire for efficiency, those odd flourishes can sometimes make the difference between whether or not I love a movie. I think Jeff Wadlow shoots action very well, and I think he has a pretty deep fondness for the characters that he brought back from the first "Kick-Ass." The film looks cheap at times, in the "I spent every penny I could on the film and those composites are the best we could do" sense of things, and I wish the film could afford another coat of paint. I think the relentless pace of things shortchanges some of the new characters too much, and I wish there was a lot more of Colonel Stars and Stripes. Carrey's work here is very good, and he is a visual shock when he shows up. He's wearing a pretty extensive prosthetic face and head, with a new jaw, a new nose, a new forehead, and even his ears modified. He walks the fine line between funny and scary, and he shows just enough humanity in his choices that it makes the Colonel seem like the most sincerely "good" person in the film.
If you're concerned that you might be offended by something in "Kick-Ass 2," there is certainly plenty to choose from. It is a happily offensive film. It makes no bones about giving the characters deep flaws as people. I don't for a moment believe that I'm meant to emulate anyone in the film, but rather, I think Millar's books tap into this merry prankster spirit, and what Wadlow does with that is commentary without necessarily choosing sides. He presents these characters with their flaws, their weaknesses, their hatred, their ignorance, and he lets them be those people without trying to pretty it up. I don't think Wadlow's telling us to emulate anyone in the films. He's just showing you what sort of moral free-for-all lies just beneath the surface, and what happens when you empower people to expose every part of themselves while supposedly safe and anonymous. I look at the characters in "Kick-Ass 2," and what I see is the Internet, a place where people get to choose their identities, a place where you are largely defined by choices you make. Your screen name. The sites you bookmark. The things you read. The things you choose to believe. The ongoing vendettas. The shocking casual racism and homophobia and misogyny. Maybe you will meet people who become part of your real life, people who become your family, your best friends, but chances are you will also meet people who enrage you, who become enraged by you, who push you just for the sake of pushing you. How you emerge from all of that, how you choose to process and react, that says a lot about who you are, and in this film, Dave, Chris, and Mindy are all forced to figure out who they are in the wake of everything we've seen go down between them. It is a surprisingly intimate set of stakes for a summer movie about superheroes, but by being that small, we can identify with it more, and "Kick-Ass 2" ultimately delivers some unpleasant truth in a way I wouldn't have expected.
"Kick-Ass 2" opens Friday.