By Preston Wilder
Both our films this week are sequels to films that weren’t really crying out for sequels. Both originals were medium-sized hits, both were based on comic books – but they’re also two sides of the same coin, edgy action comedies perched at opposite ends of the age spectrum. RED got its juice from the inappropriateness of older folk behaving badly, while Kick-Ass became notorious for younger folk, specifically kids, behaving badly – above all Hit-Girl (née Mindy Macready), played with callous sangfroid by Chloe Grace Moretz, a prepubescent mass murderer who cut men to bloody ribbons and used ‘the C-word’ with abandon.
That was three years ago – but three years is a long time in the life of a 15-year-old, which is what Mindy is now. She’s an orphan, her beloved Big Daddy having perished in the first film; the ‘prepubescent’ tag has become a bit outdated, and the best scene in Kick-Ass 2 finds our tomboyish heroine adopted by a posse of popular girls in her first week at school. There’s a sleepover, much talk of “besties” and “totes” – then the girls put on a music video of a sickly, wimpy boy band singing some saccharine nonsense, and suddenly Hit-Girl feels her knees going weak and her hormones raging. “It’s biology, bitch. Don’t fight it,” counsels one of her new friends – and the film inadvertently hits on something interesting, teenage obsessions and the way they channel youthful insecurities through acceptable proxies. One Direction is to girls as Stan Lee is to boys; some fixate on pop bands, others on comic-book superheroes. It’s all just a substitute.
That’s why there was something quite sweet about the original, in which teenage misfit Kick-Ass (né Dave Lizewski) patrolled the streets in a spandex suit he bought off the internet, looking to fight crime. Dave, played with wide-eyed sincerity by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is still around – albeit feeling lonely now that Mindy, moving on to more girly things, has hung up her Hit-Girl costume – and indeed his success spurs other DIY superheroes to come out of the closet, led by a God-fearing nutter known as Captain Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey). Dave joins the Captain’s team, battles rich kid Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) from the first film – who used to be ‘Red Mist’ but has now re-invented himself as ‘The Motherf***er’ – and generally lives a real-life comic book while “trying to figure out who I am”, the old adolescent quest for identity.
Does it work? Not really. Maybe Kick-Ass could only work once, because it disarmed you with teenage yearning then exploded into (darkly funny) violence; that kind of trick is hard to repeat, especially when we all know what’s coming. It looks for a while like the sequel might perform the reverse trick – moving back into teenage angst, especially in Mindy’s new life – but in fact that goes horribly wrong: the new friends turn out to be stereotypical mean girls, Mindy gets humiliated then takes revenge with something called the “sick stick”, a kind of zap-gun that makes the high-school princesses vomit and shit simultaneously (I’m sorry, there’s no nice way to say it). Not only is it gross, it’s out of place with the rest of it – a blatant bid for something so disgusting that the audience, in its mid-summer fog, will remember it and maybe tell their friends. It cheapens the movie.
Then again, a movie where the villains include a female Dolph Lundgren called ‘Mother Russia’ – a blonde, indestructible Valkyrie whose outfit has a hammer-and-sickle on each fearsome breast – is already pretty cheap. “The real world needs real heroes,” we’re told; “This is not a comic book, this is real life!” – but it clearly is a comic book, setting a gleeful mass-battering to the strains of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ for maximum kicks. Carrey got some stick for dissociating himself from the movie in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, but it’s easy to share his concerns; in a way, this kind of giggly violence may be even more insidious than the graphic violence of a Texas Chainsaw.
It’s hard to hate Kick-Ass 2 as much as it probably deserves. There are bright bits here and there (I like that The Motherf***er’s secret lair has a “VIP area”), and there’s also something more – an implied comment on the lure of the superhero for weak, impotent boys that’s also a comment on Hollywood itself, an entire fantasist culture in thrall to the comic book. Yet the film is finally a failure. “If I was even thinking about a Kick-Ass sequel, I had to get serious,” says Dave early on – but this actual Kick-Ass sequel lacks seriousness, wasting its best opportunities and falling back on silly shock value. A fresh, cheeky premise has been over-milked, and curdled into unpleasantness. At this point, ‘Kick-Ass 3’ is as dead as Big Daddy.
DIRECTED BY Jeff Wadlow
STARRING Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
US 2013 103 mins