Have you had enough violent mayhem recently? I sometimes fancy that the diet of the stuff the cinema feeds us – generous by any standard – is more likely to benumb our instincts than inflame them.
People worry about films provoking “copycat violence”, but it seems the only ones who really commit to the copying are other film-makers. Oh yeah, loved that fight sequence – let’s do a version of it in our next one! And so the process starts to feed on itself and the action looks very like something we saw the other week – same move, same blood-spatter, same throwaway quip, almost. The audience yawns, and drifts on to the next round of brutal fantasies.
In 2010, Kick-Ass had the smart idea of collapsing the distance between fantasy and reality. What if the masked superhero who fearlessly jumped into a streetfight was, er, us? Or, someone like us – Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), for instance, a nerdy high-schooler fed up with being invisible to girls. Dave’s solution was to don a wetsuit (green with yellow trim) and announce himself to the world as “Kick-Ass”, a have-a-go hero on a mission to clean up the town. And, of course, the only ass that got kicked was his own – the thugs he took on were beefy and vicious and put him in hospital. The film’s real talent was another masked crusader called Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), a pint-size terror with the deadly reflexes of a ninja and the language of a Premiership footballer. You messed with her at your peril.
Three years on, and Kick-Ass 2 makes its inevitable appearance. Dave’s pretty much the same, a gangly mophead in granny spectacles, less kick-ass than stuck-on-his-ass. Still chafing at his underdog leash, he puppyishly seeks out his old friend Mindy Macready, aka Hit-Girl, with a view to forming a partnership, “like Batman and Robin”. After some hesitation (“No one wants to be Robin, Dave”), she eventually agrees to put him through crimefighter school, weights, pull-ups, target practice with himself as the target, that sort of thing.
Mindy, now 14 years old, has a few issues of her own. Now an orphan, she’s in the kindly guardianship of her old man’s former police partner Marcus (Morris Chestnut), who has put the kibosh on her crime-busting routines. No more killing people – and no more swearing, either. Worse, she’s now in first year at high school, where girls are mean and boys are an ordeal: of her first date she says, “Reminds me of the first time Daddy sent me into a crack den with just a pen-knife.”
This topsy-turvy world is pretty much a continuation of the scenario which Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman created in Kick-Ass. (It was based on the comic books by Mark Millar and John S Romita Jr.) Jeff Wadlow, who writes and directs this sequel, is perfectly competent without ever threatening to strike the wild unpredictable notes of the first movie. His is a somewhat nervous approach, going for volume rather than depth.
Instead of focusing on his core characters he loads the story with new ones, none of whom register aside from Jim Carrey as born-again ex-mobster Colonel Stars and Stripes. (Carrey has since gone on Twitter to deplore the violence, which is curious to say the least: what sort of film did he think he was in?) The Colonel leads a team of costumed vigilantes called Justice Forever, a somewhat pedestrian collective whose purpose will be to fight Kick-Ass’s arch-enemy, spoilt brat Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Once known as Red Mist, he now sports his late mother’s fetish outfits and styles himself as supervillain The Mother*****. “They will know my name!” he cries. A beat passes. “I gotta tweet about this.” He too assembles an army of masked thugs, one of whom – a Russian lady bodybuilder – looks like Dolph Lundgren’s aunt.
While there are characters aplenty, one notices little in the way of characterisation. That might not matter so much to audiences in the mood for lashings of pulpy violence and colourful swearing. Moretz delivers on the latter with interest. The spectacle of a sweet-faced 14-year-old spouting a mouthful of asterisks feels somewhere between funny peculiar and funny ha-ha. I recall objecting to the scene in the original where Hit-Girl addresses a bunch of goons as “you c***s”. Now I’m not sure why it bothered me. (Does that make me a bad person?) The scene which made me wince this time round involves a joke about rape: a villain bears down on a defenceless woman, only to discover he can’t get it up. To say that it’s not funny doesn’t begin to deal with the tastelessness of the set-up. It may well prove a deal-breaker for those in two minds about seeing the film.
I remain pretty much in two minds about it myself. Moretz is a dynamic presence, and fires off her spiky one-liners with magnificent timing. The downside of her star quality is that she puts the rest in a pretty feeble light. You may find it very hard to care about a showdown between two bunches of costumed nonentities. It rattles along, a laugh here, a laugh there, occasionally reminding you of the better film that preceded it. But that’s the way with a hit; the studio wants another one, ready or not. As Hit-Girl herself would say, boo-fuckin’-hoo.