You see, all this year I’ve been struggling with gun violence in new mainstream cinema and my attitude toward it. I’m not going to get into all the particulars of my musings on the subject right here and now (someday, soon…), but a few quick bullet points for today’s Kick-Ass background:
- Yes, my feelings about gun violence in film have changed since Sandy Hook. No, that doesn’t have as much to do with the horrific Sandy Hook massacre itself as it does the pro-gun “’Merica Loves its Some Guns!” backlash that followed as new gun-control legislation was proposed.
- No, I am not opposed to any character using a gun for anything in any film. It’s all about context, intent, style, tone, and audience. It’s about how the gun play fits into the film’s overall aesthetic and theme. Yes, I still love Tarantino and John Woo and Martin Scorsese films. (But don’t get me started—at least not right now, about how much I loathed White House Down, which not only wrapped up its mindless gun porn in patriotic stupidity, but did so with a PG-13 rating, making the film specifically for teens and pre-teens.)
- Yes, part of me still finds guns and some film gun violence “cool!” But I’m working on sorting that out, on finding an acceptable balance of it in the fictional media I consume. But this year I’ve found my sensitivity toward on-screen gun kills heightened and my tolerance for it lowered, in part because of the post-Sandy Hook political and social climate and in part because, as always, it just keeps growing and growing. I like roller coasters, too, but if I had to ride them five times a day, every day, my head would fall off and burst.
All of which is to say, I feared Kick-Ass 2 because I enjoyed Kick-Ass 1 so much. If the ultra-violent, intentionally shocking sequel was half as four-color awesome as the first film, I’d have to do some pretty twisty loop-da-loops of rationalization and justification to explain why its love and glorification of gun violence was okay with me when that of recent films like Ahnold’s The Last Stand, the aforementioned White House Down, and Elysium are not.
Luckily, the very R-rated Kick-Ass 2 is borderline awful—so lackluster, lazy, and worthless as even basic exploitative entertainment that no philosophical gymnastics are needed to embrace its gun violence (which, as with its predecessor, is graphic and plentiful).
When a film is this mediocre, who cares what it is or isn’t trying to say or do with its mayhem and death?
Some of the new film’s problems are inherent in both its source material (comic-book writer Mark Millar’s graphic-novel sequels Kick-Ass 2 and Hit Girl) and the very nature of sequels. Millar and artist John Romita Jr.’s first Kick-Ass series (and the film that director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goodman made from it), with its foul-mouthed, homicidal pre-teen “heroine” of Hit Girl and its rollicking orgy of graphic bodily harm, walked a very thin, tight line between subversion and exploitation. A trick I felt that first comic and film adaptation for the most part pulled off.
But when you start going back again and again to the same well of “outrageous” material not because you have something new to say about the theme, but because sales and the bottom line demand it, what was once satirical soon starts to smell crassly excessive.
As for Kick-Ass 2 the film, the obvious difference is the absence of Vaughn and Goodman. Goodman (The Woman in Black) has a solid love and respect for and sly skill at handling genre. And Vaughn, who learned his crackerjack sense of visual glee at the elbow of Guy Ritchie and honed it in his own films Layer Cake and Stardust, carefully modulated his wry use of over-the-top material in Kick-Ass as a meta-commentary on itself. You were supposed to be shocked by it, then delighted, then disturbed by your own delight. And thanks to Vaughn’s sure-handed stylistics, Hit Girl’s jaw-dropping vigilante hi-jinks in the first film were so tightly wrapped in candy-colored irony, they clearly existed (as do Tarantino’s movies) in a separate “cinema reality.”
But for Kick-Ass 2, Vaughn and Goodman have moved on, both replaced by writer-director Jeff Wadlow (Cry Wolf, Never Back Down). Simple lack of screenwriting and directorial skills aside, the difference is between folks who love genre and know how to both play within it and transcend it and someone who can’t get beyond it.
Wadlow displays no sort of deft touch or story-telling rhythm with the Kick-Ass 2 material, which is pretty much the same as in Kick-Ass 1: High schoolers Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mindy McCready (Chloë Grace Moretz) (oops, sorry about the poor-taste timing on the character name, country-music fans) dress up as “real-life” costumed crime-fighters Kick-Ass and Hit Girl and battle it bloodily out with “real-life” costumed villains, namely Christopher Mintz-Plasse doing his “evil nerd” thing as The Motherfucker (formerly known as Red Mist).
Respective good and bad guys Nicolas Cage and Mark Strong both knew how to work the first film’s tongue-in-cliché material, but both their characters also bit it in the first film. They’re replaced this time out by Jim Carrey as a reformed mob enforcer now fighting crime as Colonel Stars and Stripes and John Leguizamo as The Motherfucker’s more down-to-earth driver, bodyguard, and enabler.
Like most of the superhero movies it intends to subvert with its “This isn’t a comic book!” ‘tude, Kick-Ass 2 suffers from too many extra new heroes and villains. This time both Kick-Ass and The Motherfucker surround themselves with dysfunctional teams, while Hit Girl tries to swim the mean-girl-infested social waters of secondary public-school education.
Where Kick-Ass 1 was a glorious explosion of a bright, four-color comic-book palette, Kick-Ass 2 is one of the most unintentionally ugly films of the year. It’s not that the new film is stylistically gritty or visually distorted, but rather that it looks like every frame has been dragged through a mud puddle and then hung up in the sunlight to slowly bleach out.
Kick-Ass 2 cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones has done impressive kinetic work in the past on such Guy Ritchie films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and on last year’s wonderfully atmospheric The Woman in Black, but here his tendency toward muted, muddied tones completely undermines the comic-book material. Nothing about Wadlow and Maurice-Jones’ styles meshes well, leaving the film visually and thematically stranded in a discouraging blandness.
That may seem like film-school nit-picking, but the washed-out, flat look of Kick-Ass 2 permeates and taints everything about it. The characters, their costumes, and their actions are all still purposefully ludicrous, but without a visual style to match and contain them, they feel pointlessly silly.
Likewise, the sequel’s attempts to mimic the original film’s profane dialogue, outrageous violence, and even its wonderfully ironic soundtrack also fall flat as cheap, desperate imitation. This time out, the raunchy dialogue feels like high-schoolers trying to swear, and the violence, aside from being staged with a thudding lack of grace, feels pointlessly, panderingly dull in its winking self-aggrandizement.
Nor does the cast show much signs of life. Kick-Ass 1 launched both Taylor-Johnson and Moretz’ careers, and both are talented actors who’ve since turned in impressive performances: Nowhere Boy, Albert Nobbs, Savages, and Anna Karenina for Johnson; Let Me In and Hugo for Moretz. But back in their Kick-Ass characters and costumes, it seems neither (especially the more thespian-minded—and now much more physically huge–Taylor-Johnson) really want to be here.
And both Moretz the actress and Mindy/Hit Girl the character are now teenagers, so whatever unsettling-but-thrilling subversion surrounded Hit Girl’s behavior in the first film is gone. For better or worse, foul-mouthed, border-line psychopathic teenagers are nothing new in film these days.
However, those two come off as down-right enthusiastic compared to Mintz-Plasse, who’s clearly uninterested in continuing to flog his foul-mouthed geek routine. (Now more of a foul-mouthed sullen metal punk routine.)
Only Jim Carrey, unrecognizable under a mask, prosthetics, and a Italia-Jersey goombah accent as thick as a slab of raw steak, seems to “get it” this time around, playing his gung-ho tough guy straight (no slapstick) with the right mix of self-aware excess and earnestness.
(Not so coincidentally, it was Carrey who, in the wake of Sandy Hook, choked a bit on his own conscience and disavowed his generally effective work in Kick-Ass 2.)
Most of all, unlike in the first film, there’s no fun to be had in Kick-Ass 2. It’s mean, joyless, and devoid of art. The film feels like a plodding bully who tries to emulate the ballet-like slapstick of a Three Stooges routine by turning around and punching you in the balls.