17 Aug 2013

Screen Time: KICK-ASS 2

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey, John Leguizamo, Donald Faison, Morris Chestnut, Claudia Lee
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Runtime: 103 mins
Certificate: 15
Release Date: 14th August 2013 (UK), 16th August 2013 (US)

Stewart R: Three years ago Kick-Ass hit screens everywhere. It cut, thrust, shot and bludgeoned its way to a middling box office tally, convinced many that there was a chance that fringe comic book titles could be converted to entertaining big screen efforts, gave a big shot in the arm to the career of director, Matthew Vaughan, and introduced us to a pint-sized, foul-mouthed, near-adolescent and insanely likeable assassin pugilist and the talented young lady behind her performance. While the film was named after the character played by the adept Taylor-Johnson, you'd be forgiven for forgetting the full details of his name and that of Kick-Ass's alter ego as the most memorable and smile-inducing thing to come out of it was Chloe Moretz's Hit-Girl. Looking back now, even Nic Cage's Big Daddy probably trumps Kick-Ass in the memorable moments stakes. And so here we are, some 36 months later, two fresh comic book series set in the same world under our belts, the directorial reigns handed over and the cast approaching adulthood faster than their fictional counterparts. Could Kick-Ass 2, well, umm, kick the ass of the first film?

The answer is a pretty unsurprising 'no' - much of the shock and glorious awe that came with that first unexpected outing simply cannot be replicated a second time - but what we get instead is a sequel that stays pretty faithful to the world set by its predecessor and wins the favour of the audience once again as a result.

Set a handful of years after the city shaking events of Kick-Ass, Dave Lizewski has faded back into the humdrum of high school life and obscurity while Mindy is struggling to give up her Hit-Girl persona and find her place within the everyday world that she finds so foreign. Elsewhere, Chris D'Amico, formerly the devastatingly pitiful hero wannabe Red Mist, fumes over the death of his gang boss father at the hands of Kick-Ass and swears his own brand of brutal and misguided revenge. Meanwhile, Kick-Ass's five minutes of fame has stirred others around New York to don capes and masks and take up their own vigilante cause...
Mark Millar wrote separate Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl comic book series and here the general points of both get spliced and threaded together to show the two protagonists' stories running in parallel (alongside Chris' descent into becoming the Motherfucker) as they all struggle with a very similar problem shown in very different ways - loneliness. Dave feels trapped and lonely in his anonymity, only coming alive amongst like-minded heroes who share his vision for making the world a better place. The big problem for Dave is that he still lacks the skills to be a hero facing true danger just like so many of his costumed acquaintances. Mindy, on the other hand, arguably works better alone and has the skills of a ninja master. However, she feels utterly lost and lonely amongst the bizarre rituals of high school life which she's forced to endure following her solemn promise to her father. Even Chris D'Amico continues to struggle with loneliness and his inability to interact with people in a normal fashion, insulting his closest ally at every turn and resorting to the strength of the almighty dollar to enlist followers.

Rather surprisingly, it's Taylor-Johnson who is pretty much forced by the script to play the sensible, fairly straight-edged guy this time around; where before Dave was the wide-eyed, fish-out-of-water with a crazy idea, Big Daddy playing the no-nonsense mentor and Mark Strong's Frank D'Amico constantly bewildered by the madcap crap going on around him, this time the surrounding cast are all over the fence and on the way to crazy town. Dave on the other hand is single minded in what he wants and where he sees his life going and it does make for something of a one note character, albeit one that Taylor-Johnson imbues with a sense of bubbling fun. Given a longer runtime, there might have been opportunity to expand on Dave's thoughts about his part in creating this superhero movement, or the endangering of those he holds dear, but with so many balls to juggle the more sensible choice has been made to follow Mindy's character progression, utilising Moretz's classy depiction of her to yield the best results. She owns the screen at every opportunity and it's great to see her transition from fake tearful teen to frustrated young woman possessing confidence and intelligence that belie her young age at the snap of a finger.

Her fighting skills have certainly not diminished and the action sequences get close to matching the frenetic, bloody ballet of the first film, yet seem to actively hold back from trying to better them. That may be a script-related choice - Hit-Girl's opponent during the finale may explain the throttling off earlier on in order to give a believable pay off at the end - but in any case it actually helps to make Kick-Ass 2 feel like a solid, bolt-on attachment to the first film.
I personally like the fact that this is a comic book sequel that doesn't shy away from the emotional trials and tribulations of its protagonists and isn't afraid to keep the escalation down to an incredibly manageable scale. Nearly every hero has a story behind their actions yet they all border on the weird, downtrodden, nerdy or clearly unhinged and every one is an underdog in one way or another. Even Mindy is an underdog during daylight hours and it should be said that her awkward steps into the hard knocks of teenage life are, for me, the film's highpoints. They are certainly more rounded than Dave's larks with Justice Forever - though Jim Carrey's gurning Colonel Stars and Stripes is certainly worth the price of admission - or the occasional conflicts with his father which keep the film churning onwards.

Incoming director Wadlow attempts to maintain that same real-world-playing-at-superheroes vibe that Vaughan caught so perfectly with the first film, throwing in the odd comic book speech bubble translation and stylised text message conversation here and there for minimal geeky effect, and the backflips and explosive carnage are kept to as believable a level as they possibly can be. The quick cutting certainly gives the acrobatics a similar sense of whirlwind speed that we witnessed previously, but there's a noticeable drop on the visceral scale and I couldn’t help but feel that the accompanying soundtrack certainly didn't have the impact of say 'Bad Reputation' or the Banana Splits 'Tra La La Song' which Vaughan used to great effect first time around.

And perhaps that sums Kick-Ass 2 up; this is a film that doesn't actually feel like it's trying to better the debut - a jet-pack and bazooka were arguably used in jumping the franchise's own lethargic shark - and which only just falls short in trying to match it. The problem is that everything that buzzed in harmony three years ago, to give the audience something a little special, a little new within the genre, now feels a little too familiar. It was also noticeable that the writers and director played around with some of the bigger points of the source material - one concerning Motherfucker and a captured hero is sensibly turned around and wins with a gag, while another grim and truly memorable end for one character in the comic is strangely rewritten for no discernible reason. There are certainly laughs to be found throughout Kick-Ass 2, excitement to appreciate during the set pieces and it's impossible to ignore the stellar job that Moretz does to convince us of Hit-Girl's path to becoming her own young woman. It’s a solid effort from all concerned, it just doesn’t shine as brightly as perhaps it could have. I guess when you've had your ass kicked in the best cinematic way once, you tend to be used to the beating the second time around. 7/10

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