Saturday, August 17, 2013


 One of the major tropes of the “super-hero” genre has always been the conceit of the “secret identity”, which is also known as the “dual identity” because in most cases the presented persona of the hero or heroine is opposite in temperament to the person’s own.  Prototypically, Clark Kent was conceived as nebbishly emasculated compared to Superman’s virile animus. Bruce Wayne’s ennui masked Batman’s righteous fanaticism, Diana Prince was meek and mousey compared to Wonder Woman’s feminist self-possession, and so forth. Peter Parker was also meek but unlike Clark Kent, who simply put on a klutzy act, this was his gestalt personality. However, he felt truly alive and free to be himself when he donned the mask of “Spider-Man”.  Eventually, the issue of who was the real person and who was the mask became a point debate that, for many of these characters, still remains unanswered. Kick-Ass 2, written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, based on the comic book characters created by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., has its own identity conundrum as it is disjointed in presentation. 

Set a couple of years after the first Kick-Ass, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has put aside the Kick-Ass persona and resumed the normal, albeit frustrating, life of a high school student.  When he finds said lifestyle lacking, he decides to resume his career as Kick-Ass in order to regain his sense of purpose.  Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz) has honored her promise to her late father (Nicholas Cage, who appears only in photograph but whose ghost is felt in the form of the showcased Big Daddy costume, which is displayed in eerie inverse juxtaposition to similar scenes in Frank Miller’s 80s’ “Dark Knight Returns” mini-series) by continuing her war on crime as Hit-Girl, though doing so without the knowledge or consent of her adoptive father Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut). When he does find out, however, Mindy is forced to renounce her identity in order to find out what it means to be a “normal” girl.  Meeeeeanwhiiiiillllllle, at stately D’Amico manor, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is still wanting revenge against Kick Ass for the death of his father when fate gives him inspiration to become the world’s first super-villain, “The Motherfucker”, which leads to disturbing consequences for practically all involved.

In watching the film, I came away with two impressions.  One:  That the director/screenwriter tried to elevate the film in scope and importance beyond the source material. Two: That this quest for relevance has created inadvertently a schizophrenic film.

For example:  Throughout the film, characters repeatedly assert that they live “in the real world”, but when you have characters like Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina, who looks like Colonel Ninotchka from G.L.O.W. jacked up from five steroid cycles) possessing a nigh invulnerable hide who can pick up a lawn mower with less effort than a pen, or characters like Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison, who’s only shining moment in the film is a sequence that was undoubtedly cribbed from self-described real life vigilante Phoenix Jones’ experiences) having a bat that can be made into a high-tech tool right out of a bondage fetish catalog, the lie is placed to the conceit. Is it real, or is it fantasy? And therein lies the inherent problem with the film.  It is self-consciously self-aware. In its attempt to be hip in an “in on the joke” kind of way, it undermines the flow of the story, making almost a parody of the parody/ Case in point:  Moments of comedy are followed by moments of sadism, and vice versa; a styling most especially epitomized in a short but potent performance by Jim Carrey as Col. Stars-N-Stripes. At times, Carrey’s performance is played as caricature but there is also an underlying hint of tragic gravitas.  Unfortunately, the Colonel isn’t in the film long enough to have either possibility explored.[1]  There are moments where the director reveals the absurdity of the costumed super-hero (or villain) by placing them in mundane surroundings. But beneath that veneer one can see either the sadism or heroism of the individuals that don them. The action and fight scenes are presented in both comedic and realistic fashion, a combination that works at times, but also lends an uncomfortable feeling to the proceedings.
The film skirts with issues of fetishism and ego, but they are cursorily viewed. However, all other thematic elements in the film are heavy-handedly presented. The only hint of subtlety comes, surprisingly, from John Leguizzamo as Javier, Motherfucker’s bodyguard and surrogate father figure, who may or may not be what he seems. Take a gander at his facial expressions and body language when certain lines are said; it’s a performance that is better than the movie, quite frankly, deserves.
The film is ambitious and one gets the sense that Wadlow wants to get the material to rise above itself, to actually say something.  However, ambitious his intentions, the messages he presents are mixed.  He tones down the “Quentin-Tarantino/acid trip Adam West Batman” aesthetic established by director Matthew Vaughn in the first film and juxtaposes it against a teen bildungsroman, following the two main characters as they follow a similar path though starting from opposing directions. He plays with Jungian and Freudian psychological questions regarding gender roles, acceptance/rejection of father figures (literal and figurative), and chauvinism versus feminism, among others.[2] However, the presentation of each, and their attempt at resolution, comes off as incomplete and tacked on; one which is especially felt in Mindy’s high school journey.  It’s like an ill-fitting puzzle, where pieces are forced into place where they do not belong, making for a picture that is not quite there. The sad thing is that the elements are obviously there, but either left unexplored or cut off too abruptly to lead to a satisfying conclusion.
Fault cannot lie with the actors, though in some cases the performances belie the characters, as in the case of the (ostensible) lead.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s physique has changed significantly since the first Kick-Ass however very little has made to disguise that fact in the beginning of the film, making it difficult to believe that he has been retired, thus detrained, since the events of the first film. Despite this fact, he is believable and hits all the right emotional beats when called for. The big draw of this film is star-on-the-rise, Moretz.  The Hit Girl character became a breakout character and an overnight feminist icon.  However, her popularity is such that could breed overexposure, thus minimizing her effectiveness on screen.  To the film’s credit, it follows the “Incredible Hulk” edict of “less is more”. However, on a whole, Moretz must be given major props for being able to give a performance that skirts the line between strength and vulnerability and do so with credibility.
Someone should give Mintz-Plasse the “most annoying villain” award at the next People’s Choice Awards, because he actually makes D’Amico more annoying than the first film. Like Carrey, it’s a performance that works even as it undermines itself. His character performs deeds that are horrific, but seem to stem more from petulant tantrum than a place of actual evil.  Sadly, as his incarcerated Uncle Ralph, Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) evinces much more evil in five minutes of screen time than Mintz-Plasse does for the entire film. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether Mintz-Plasse’s presents a bravura performance or it misses the mark. 
All in all, Kick Ass 2 is an enjoyable film. Unfortunately, the lack of follow through in terms of themes and even within the characters themselves (there is one particular instance wherein a character’s lack of foresight leads to a tragic consequence, yet said character neither is made aware of it nor is made to deal with the consequences of said action), gives the film an unfinished feel. 
Personally, I wanted to like this film more than I did because it is entertaining; it’s not just particularly fun.  It is, in a sense, too self-important; which could be forgiven if it was treated as a straight up parody of the genre.  However (and to his credit), Jeff Wadlow made an attempt to make a more substantive film that ends up being a mixed bag.  Kick-Ass 2 is good for what it is but it could have been so much more, and the hints of that greatness-that-could-have-been that are shown but left unexplored is what ultimately lessens the whole.

[1] Supposition on my own part, but I wonder if the majority of Carrey’s scenes ended up on the cutting room floor due to his very public disownment of the film due to its level of violence as a response to the events of Sandy Hook.

[2] Which are matters that go beyond the scope of a simple movie review, but may be followed up as a separate essay on this forum at a later date.