Kick-Ass 2: Bigger, Louder, Dumber, Assier

THE ORIGINAL Kick-Ass came as something of a jumpsuit-clad, crotch-punch surprise to the burgeoning superhero film genre when it burst kicking and screaming onto screens in 2010, spitting profanities and subversion as it went.

While its tone was disjointed and its plot strands wildly divergent, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn’s script was razor sharp, the latter’s dynamic direction imbuing each scene with real verve and subtle idiosyncrasy. Its violence was stylish, albeit remorseless and over-the-top, revelling in its own amorality but never shying from presenting a deft commentary on superheroes and their place in society, even if you did roll your eyes at the umpteenth reference to Spider-Man et al.

The cult success of the original made the prospect of a sequel somewhat inevitable. Goldman and Vaughn stay on as producers for Kick-Ass 2, handing the script and directing duties over to Jeff Wadlow, a man whose most notable film prior to this was, er, Never Back Down. Hmm.

Kick-Ass 2 trades in ironic humour for toilet humour, subtlety for bluntness and innovation for banality, delivering a watered-down product fresh out of the factory, lacking the charm and poise that characterised the original. Like many sequels, Kick-Ass 2 takes what made the original intriguing and dumbs it down, subtracting its strengths and compounding its flaws.

Wadlow admirably attempts to emulate Vaughn’s flamboyant, frenetic visual style but ends up smothering the frame; when not cluttered, the direction borders on pedestrian, apeing whole scenes from the original but not quite understanding what made them work. The script is clunky, shallow and leaden, with characters often repeating themselves – I lost count of the times “this is the real world” and “this is who you are” were said, sometimes in the same sentence.

Any sense of plausibility regarding Kick-Ass being a believable, realistic character goes soaring out the window, along with any notion of restraint; the film’s violence approaches Tarantino levels but lacks nuance. CGI blood spurts detract from any visceral quality and camera unsteadiness hampers its impact, cheapening otherwise solid choreography.

The tone is even more schizophrenic than before, lurching abruptly from gross-out comedy to subdued introspection; characters grapple with the unbearable weight of their double-lives one minute and swap faecal one-liners the next. Emotional heft, with the exception of Hit-Girl, is sorely lacking. The plot, what little there is, makes the original look focused by comparison, threatening to buckle altogether when a bizarre Mean Girls caricature crash-lands into frame. Perhaps this tonal incongruence can be attributed to the script’s source material; Wadlow Frankenstein’d Mark Millar’s ‘Kick-Ass 2’ comic and its spin-off ‘Hit-Girl’ into one, after all.

Great casting – particularly Jim Carrey and John Leguizamo – is thoroughly wasted when characters are given a meagre fraction of screen time. The film’s general bedlam, juvenility and wasted potential all combine to create a cauldron of mediocrity, serving only to blight the original’s unique legacy.

Why, then, in spite of all of that, did I actually start enjoying myself? For one, the sheer crassness of the script passes an event horizon of bad taste and comes back around to somehow become funny, beating you over the head with profound crudeness until you have to laugh as a sort of small mercy to yourself.

More importantly, the film’s performances elevate its substandard bulk beyond its station. Of the strong supporting cast, an almost unrecognisable Carrey impresses the most as Colonel Stars ‘n’ Stripes, a swaggering born-again vigilante who assembles an amateur Avengers called Justice Forever. Sadly, as is the case with Leguizamo, he is criminally underused, given about 15 minutes to shine; this is particularly strange when the promotional material features him so prominently. Bodybuilder Olga Kurkulina is also fantastic as Mother Russia, exuding an Ivan Drago-esque menace with the muscles to match.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse offers the most laughs in his villainous role as The Mother****er, donning bondage leather to exact revenge upon Kick-Ass for the death of his father. Though he cannot hope to fill the delightfully fiendish shoes of Mark Strong, Mintz-Plasse does an admirable job of offering the heroes a credible threat in the form of his rival team, The Super Toxic Mega-C***s. Aaron Taylor-Johnson returns to the role of an (again) under-developed Kick-Ass, spending much of the film he’s named after as a strangely inconsequential soundboard for other characters. Once again, the emotional brunt of the narrative rests upon the shoulders of Chloë Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl.

Moretz delivers the standout performance, even without the buffer of Nic Cage’s Big Daddy (whose portrait makes a hilarious cameo). Despite her youth, Moretz effortlessly brings maturity, dignity and charm to Hit-Girl, holding her own as a convincing action lead while simultaneously revealing an endearingly vulnerable, human side to the character. Hit-Girl’s evolution from childhood to adolescence is expertly handled, proving Moretz’s stellar turn to be the one absolute, runaway success of Kick-Ass 2.

The film as whole is not without its own merits: the subplot where Hit-Girl attempts to integrate herself into normal high school life is surprisingly well-executed; a scene where a Varsity dance audition is re-imagined in the heroine’s head as a martial arts battle is a standout. Further, her battle of wits with the monstrously bitchy Brooke (played with catty glee by Claudia Lee) is a real treat. While he’s onscreen, Carrey electrifies otherwise rote scenes with the sheer magnetism of his presence. Meanwhile, Mother Russia’s rampage through a suburban neighbourhood (along with the aforementioned dance scene) comes closest to matching the visual potency of Vaughn’s original.

Unfortunately these are all isolated moments, islands in an aimless sea, and Wadlow is ultimately unable to reconcile the internal conflicts at the film’s heart. Is it a coming-of-age teen comedy or a superhero send-up? Is it American Pie or Super? We are left uncertain.

At its bluntest the film is as its most effective, sacrificing satirical bite and subtlety for broadly comedic punches. At its heart and at its best, an enjoyable, entertaining romp through a vibrant comic-book world – it’s just a shame that the good bits are tempered by lowbrow pandering. Kick-Ass 2 succumbs to diminishing returns, spreading its canvas and blunting its edge. By going bigger and louder it feels smaller and fainter. Though its script and direction fall flat, the impressive cast saves it from the doldrums of mediocrity. It doesn’t measure up to the original but, taken on its own level, it’s certainly not all that bad. That may sound like damning with faint praise – and perhaps it is – but Kick-Ass 2 certainly doesn’t suck ass; it just fails to, well, kick ass.