Friday, August 16, 2013

Kick Back: KICK-ASS 2

I get – or is that hope? –Kick-Ass 2, the thematically ugly follow-up to a film that was none-too-pretty to start with, is intended to skewer power-trip fantasies of the superhero kind. An oft-repeated bit of phrasing in the narration and dialogue wonders what would happen if a person in the real world decided to suit up and dish out vigilante justice. Almost as often, a character will growl, “this isn’t a comic book!” But this cornerstone of the premise was thrown out well before the first film ended with Kick-Ass, a dweeby high school student, riding a jet-pack to fire rounds from a bazooka into a penthouse apartment where a mobster was beating up Hit Girl, a little girl trained by her ex-cop father to take the law into her own hands. So, you see, Kick-Ass, for all its professed interest in more grounded superheroics finds itself squarely in shoot-‘em-up, blow-‘em-up territory with outlandish characters with wild backstories doing exaggerated battle with each other. Its one bit of (almost) novelty is the nonstop vulgar language and copious gory effects of combat. But, even more so the second time around, that has the effect of making the whole thing revel in the very implications it ostensibly brings up in order to critique the very genre of which it’s ultimately a total embrace. It’s purposelessly toxic.

This movie finds Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) students by day and superheroes by night. It makes a certain amount of sense that the aftermath of the first film finds the mobster’s son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) looking to avenge his father’s death by cooking up a new persona as a self-declared “world’s first supervillain.” It makes less sense that the events of the first film have inspired a bunch of copycat heroes who roam the streets looking to do good. They end up forming a team with Kick-Ass and call themselves “Justice Forever.” I like the detail that one of their outings as do-gooders is volunteering at a soup kitchen. The group is lead by an ex-mob enforcer turned born-again Christian (Jim Carrey) and includes a motley collection of teenagers (Clark Duke, Robert Emms), young professionals (Donald Faison, Lindy Booth), and a middle-aged couple (Steven Mackintosh and Monica Dolan). Eventually, the supervillain gathers up an army of his own and the whole thing starts to look suspiciously like ugly gang warfare in silly costumes.

But it’s been ugly well before then. What’s worse? That the film is offensive or that it feels like it has to try so hard to get there? This is a film that’s mean-spirited and tonally off, expecting us to laugh and cringe and cry at violence presented at more or less the same speed and style all the way through. It’s full of quick and dirty stereotypes and unfeeling exaggeration of conventional superhero tropes. The filmmakers seem to have missed the point that’s not only implicit in their material, but is actually swirling around unformed on screen as well. (To their credit, the source comic book by Mark Millar missed the point, too.) Real life superheroes are just vigilantes in costumes. Just because they think they’re the good guys, doesn’t make their actions any less scary as individuals and destabilizing as a group. When Justice Forever breaks up a poker game below what we’re told is a brothel of captive illegal immigrants and cuts through a bunch of people, we’re only told they are “bad.” It’s presented in the film as a lark, but isn’t it terrifying? Wouldn’t an anonymous tip to the police be better for everyone involved? Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass was far from flawless, but at least it seemed aware of the scary and dangerous edge to the premise.

Violence and vigilantism are not the only ugly aspects of Kick-Ass 2. That it has characters explicitly call out racism and homophobia doesn’t make the film any less so for such attitudes running rampant throughout. Especially distasteful is the villain’s gang filled exclusively with lazy racial stereotypes. Twice he’s told he’s being racist and he waves off criticism. But then the movie goes ahead and has, say, a tough Russian henchwoman dressed up like Ivan Drago, as if the villain’s racist hiring practices would be embraced by his hires. Besides, every other “bad” person besides Christopher Mintz-Plasse is a broad stereotype, from the Asians in the aforementioned brothel poker game to the Latino thugs Kick-Ass fights near the beginning of the film to the black MMA fighter that jumps at the chance to work for the bad guy. Maybe one or two of these would be fine, but collectively it paints a picture of “non-white” or “foreign” equaling “bad.” Those few self-conscious lines do nothing but point out that someone involved thought the movie should say something to cushion the blow.

Misogyny doesn’t even get called out in this way. The movie is too busy doing a good job hating every non-Hit Girl woman on screen young and old alike. If they’re not actively hateful, they’re mocked and dismissed or turned into an objectified pawn in the plot. Even Hit Girl’s tragic backstory is plowed under for cheap thrills and lazy motivation. Instead of thinking through the aftermath a childhood like hers would lead to, she’s dumped into a Mean Girls scenario between martial arts battles. I felt disappointed for Lyndsy Fonseca, who, after playing a central role the first time around, here is written off in a jealous overreacting misunderstanding never to be seen again. But I felt only pity for young Claudia Lee in her first film role. She plays a vicious queen bee of a high school girl. Aside from her one-note slimy sniping and insinuating bullying of Hit Girl, she’s dressed in ultra-tight clothing, gives a risqué dance at cheerleader tryouts, then plays a scene in which she’s embarrassed in the cafeteria when she projectile vomits and has explosive diarrhea at the same time. We’re supposed to be happy watching this comeuppance, but I just felt sad for everyone involved.

The actors aren’t to blame for any of this. They do their best with bad writing. A waste of a good character can’t stop Moretz from seeming like the star on the rise that she is. She’s a captivating screen presence and sells some risible moments I wouldn’t have thought sellable. She’d be more than capable of selling a female superhero movie, a sadly nonexistent variant of the genre as far as Hollywood is concerned. Carrey’s fiercely entertaining, but in an awfully small role. Mintz-Plasse goes for it, as misguided as his character is. Taylor-Johnson plays the hero well; maybe we could get him in a better franchise, stat. The supporting cast is filled with fine work in roles either underwritten or set dressing, and certainly nothing as unexpected and weirdly weighty as Nicolas Cage in the first movie. Technically, he does appear here in a photograph on a wall, proving that he may be the only actor who can get a big laugh out of me in a film he didn’t act in. (I was the only one in the theater to laugh, though, so take it with a grain of salt. It was a reversal of the crowd’s reactions the rest of the film.)

The ultimate failing of Kick-Ass 2 is the complete fumbling of tone that comes with writer-director Jeff Wadlow’s approach, especially when it comes to violence. The first film had Matthew Vaughn, who, though far from perfect on this matter, seemed to understand how to shape it for the screen in ways that sometimes seemed aware of impact and timing. Wadlow simply splatters the screen, fundamentally misunderstanding the power of the images he plays with, unable to make violence matter or jokes land. He underestimates how uncomfortable the film as a whole begins to feel. It’s a film that’s callous and for all its talk of justice and surface-level grappling with talk of responsibility and questioning the net societal gain of superheroes, jocularly fascist and carelessly corrosive.

The movie is punishing and upsetting, all the more so for treating its content so lightly. When one “bad” character kills a string of policemen in creatively gory ways while two side characters crack jokes about her killing prowess, that’s not entertaining. It’s deeply uncomfortable. When a threat of rape is used as a tool of intimidation, even in a scene that tries to make the villain the butt of the joke, that’s not simply an illustration of evil; it’s awful and tonally mismanaged. No amount of straining for cheaply offensive surface detail, juvenile jokes and cussing can paper over the movie’s wholly bankrupt thematic and moral center.

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