In many ways, "Kick-Ass 2" is a perfect finish to yet another summer full of formulaic big-budget superhero movies. At times, it's a brash, snarky, exceedingly crude send-up of costumed hero films, enthusiastically vulgar and cynical in all the ways that the movies it riffs on are grim and earnest.
But like so many superheroes, the movie suffers from an identity crisis: It can't quite decide whether it wants to be a cleverly outrageous satire of superhero film conventions, or a gross-out gag- fest that celebrates the ugliest, most anti-social tendencies of comic books and their cinematic counterparts.
The movie's gleefully over-the-top violence, which is actually toned down from the Mark Millar comic it's based on, is almost enough to make me sympathize with actor Jim Carrey, who plays a key supporting role in the film. In June, the actor declared that he couldn't support the movie's level of violence following last year's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and bowed out of doing press for the movie.
I say "almost," though, because it's impossible to see any direct connection between that tragic shooting and the movie's fictional violence, much of which is not even particularly gun-centric. Nor could Mr. Carrey have been unaware of the movie's tone, which is similar to its predecessor's, before agreeing to his part. Which makes his decision to back out of publicity look more like a self- serving excuse to avoid tedious promotional duties than an act of genuine conscience.
But the movie's violence is unnerving, an effect amplified by the premise, which asks what might happen if comic-book-loving teenagers and garden variety criminals put on homemade costumes to become powerless superheroes in a real, or at least realer, world.
Like the first film, the sequel follows Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) as the titular hero, a high-school geek who dons a brightly colored mask and wet suit in order to fight urban crime, this time as a member of a wannabe superteam led by ex-mob enforcer Colonel Stars and Stripes (Mr. Carrey). Once again, Dave is partnered opposite Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), a younger teenage crime-fighter trained by her superhero dad (Nicolas Cage, whose character died in the first installment) to fight with genuine superskill - and superviolence to match.
There's a feisty but unsettling comic sadism to Hit-Girl's blood- spraying, limb-lopping rampages. The sprees raise the question: Is the movie's violence unnerving because it wants to expose the inherent ugliness at the heart of comic book action? Or because it's participating in the same sort of mindless comic book exploitation?
That question goes double for the extraordinarily brutal and gory criminal exploits of Christopher Mintz-Plasse's villain character, whose name can't be printed in a family newspaper.
The movie slyly connects the discomfiting violence of both the heroes and the villains to their adolescent love of comic book conflicts. And in that way, it's a surprisingly perceptive movie about superhero cliches and the way that comic book stories cater to fanboy power fantasies.
But is it enjoyable? That's a harder question to answer. It's engaging in some ways and repulsive in others. I'm not entirely sure whether to praise it or condemn it, and I'm not sure the filmmakers know which they would prefer either.
TWO AND ONE-HALF STARS
TITLE: "Kick-Ass 2"
CREDITS: Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow
RATING: R for extreme violence, vulgar language, bodily function humor
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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