How do you solve a problem like “Kick-Ass”?
The franchise, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., occupies a specific, narrowly focused sliver of the pop-culture universe, straddling graphic violence and playful innocence, cynicism and sweetness, paint-peeling vulgarity and winsome charm.
In 2010’s “Kick-Ass,” those contradictions slammed together with giddily subversive brio, thanks in large part to a fearless performance by Chloe Grace Moretz, whose character, Hit-Girl — a purple-haired dervish decked out in motorcycle leathers, a short plaid skirt and a mean pair of nunchucks — became an instant avatar for third (or is it fourth?) wave feminism and middle school girls’ empowerment.
Hit-Girl returns in “Kick-Ass 2,” still with the face of an angel, the mouth of a stevedore and the pugilistic chops of a skilled Mixed Martial Arts fighter. Having lost her beloved father, Big Daddy (played in the previous film by Nicolas Cage), Hit-Girl — known in the civilian world as Mindy Macready — is now a high school freshman, living with her guardian, Marcus (Morris Chestnut), and regularly skipping school to save the world. When Dave Lizewski (a.k.a. the DIY superhero of the film’s title, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) asks Mindy to join him to form a dynamic duo, she declines at first. “I’m in the NFL, Dave,” she says with her signature snarl. “You play pee wee.”
In “Kick-Ass 2,” all of New York is awash in homemade save-the-dayers, well-meaning goofballs who stitch up capes, polish their origin stories and set out to fight crime with bumbling, vigilante earnestness. They finally meet their match in the villain previously known as Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), now decked out in patent leather S&M accessories and having changed his nom de plume to an unprintable epithet. Meanwhile Mindy, after vowing to Marcus that she would leave her Hit-Girl persona behind, is battling the fiercest opponents of her career: high school Mean Girls whose cliques and casual cruelties are far more lethal than anything she’s encountered.
The scenes of Mindy putting the Queen Bees in their places are the most enjoyable sequences of “Kick-Ass 2,” directed by Jeff Wadlow with efficiency if not inspiration. There are some hilariously witchy, “Heathers”-worthy exchanges in one girl’s innocently pink-swathed room, and when Mindy tries out during a highly sexualized dance team audition she blows the crowd away when she decides she’d rather fight than bump and grind. Even at the ripe age of 23, Taylor-Johnson proves to be a surprisingly convincing adolescent boy, his cheeks flushing persuasively when he begs Mindy to join him on his mission. Their chemistry is disarmingly palpable and honest. “You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re beautiful and you’re the strongest person I’ve ever met,” he says besottedly at one point. Now, that’s romance.
Still, with so much going for it, “Kick-Ass 2” can’t quite sustain its own contradictions: As a post-Tarantino commentary on screen violence, it tries to neutralize its moments of brutality — along with dashes of racism and homophobia — by putting quotes around them. But the sadistic carnage is also clearly the movie’s chief selling point. (Co-star Jim Carrey, who’s nearly unrecognizable as one of Dave’s would-be teammates, grew so squeamish about the film’s violence that he refused to help promote it.)
Tinged with genuine tragedy, “Kick-Ass 2” provides a highly-pitched backdrop for Dave and Mindy to question their own fealty to solving problems through brute force. But those moral arguments are all but drowned out by the film’s increasingly sadistic set pieces, culminating in a Grand Guignol of vicious bloodletting and death. Like its own protagonists, “Kick-Ass 2” can’t decide what it wants to be when it grows up: a vessel for unhinged vengeance and destruction or a meta-critique of those same impulses. In going for both, it winds up being neither.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong violence, pervasive profanity, crude and sexual content and brief nudity. 103 minutes.