Review: 'Kick-Ass 2'

The liveliest stretch of “Kick-Ass” -- Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s vulgar, violent comic book about would-be vigilantes operating under the guise of superhero costumes -- saw pre-teen assassin Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) ruthlessly dispatching an entire hallway of henchmen to the tune of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” Through that point, it was all fun and games whenever someone got hurt -- not just “until” -- but then mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) beats on the 11-year-old just as a grown man would. Her endless supplies of ammunition and remarkable gymnastic prowess are of no use now.

I could never reconcile the hypocrisy of that moment: this girl’s untouchable so long as it’s cool to watch, but very vulnerable indeed once the tables are turned, followed by an absurd gesture of heroism that acts as a wish-fulfillment capper on a story that otherwise ostensibly condemned the insane behavior that our heroes would engage in. During Jeff Wadlow’s “Kick-Ass 2,” characters go so far as to repeatedly insist that “this isn’t a comic book! This is real life!” Right, the real life with the bazookas and jet-packs and pet sharks and man-sized microwaves. That lip service to consequence only draws attention to the fact that this sequel is an even more pronounced cartoon that nonetheless maintains the first film’s habit of mocking comic conventions while rarely subverting them.

In keeping with the film, we’ve already devoted more attention to Hit-Girl than our actual protagonist, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a New York high-schooler itching to get back in the habit of clandestine crime-fighting just as Hit-Girl (a.k.a. Mindy Macready) is trying to leave that life behind following the passing of her father (Nicolas Cage). They part ways and each lands in a suitable clique; Mindy takes up with a crew of “Heathers”/”Mean Girls”-types led by Brooke (Claudia Lee) and gives “being a normal teenage girl” a try, while Dave seeks out fellow do-gooders and finds himself recruited by Colonel Stars and Stripes (an unrecognizable Jim Carrey), leader of the superhero team Justice Forever. That leaves friend-turned-foe Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a rich kid with a bad temper who’s gone from being Red Mist to strutting around town in S&M gear as the Motherf**ker on a campaign to take out Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl and anyone else who stands in his way.

While admitting that Wadlow has improved on previous films “Never Back Down” and “Cry_Wolf” may not be saying much, the writer-director does a commendable job of matching Vaughn’s profane swagger in terms of tone, although the action scenes lack Vaughn’s more distinctive punctuation and occasionally seem hindered by a reduced budget, especially during a highway-set rescue sequence. There’s even something particularly crass about watching an ex-KGB henchwoman by the name of Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina) take out NYPD officers two by two in a parade of elaborate executions.

Then again, let’s not pretend that good taste was the name of the game the first time around. When compared to the now-tarnished novelty of a pint-sized killer of men, “KA2” eagerly seeks to lower the bar with gags involving homophobia, threats of rape, accusations of statutory rape and a most unfortunate symphony of two-way bodily excretion. But hey! That rape bit ends with a limp-dick joke! And when the Motherf**ker assigns a series of racist monikers to his lackeys, his right hand man (John Leguizamo) points out that they’re all stereotypes. “No! They’re archetypes!” Chris insists, just as the film repeatedly offers its own half-hearted excuses for such a juvenile campaign of offensiveness.

It doesn’t help that Taylor-Johnson continues to out-bland Tobey Maguire as a kid trying to do the right thing, or that Moretz still acts circles around him as Mindy goes through the paces of her own coming-of-age mini-movie, balancing volatility and vulnerability with a preternatural ease. As the closest thing to a Cage surrogate around, Carrey’s clearly having a good time, and if anything, one would have welcomed more of his born-again patriot cracking skulls and grins with equal fervor.

However, at the end of the day, this is a sequel that is faithful to the superficial thrills and flaws of the original. It’s the type of movie that proudly trash-talks Batman and Robin while plainly aping the arcs of Peter Parker and Harry Osborn. Despite the cries of real-world consequence, “Kick-Ass 2” isn’t above the usual hero-no-more speeches and second-act calls to action; they just happen to involve more f-bombs than pumpkin bombs.

SCORE: 5.6 / 10