There's a great moment buried in the center of writer/director Jeff Wadlow's KICK-ASS 2 that best epitomizes the film. When Dave aka Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) realizes that he's going to need more than just his self-made prowess and equally amateur partner, Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison), to defeat the street scum that perpetually invade the area, he is introduced to a crew of up-and-coming vigilantes who are none other than regular people who in one way or another have been bullied or mocked by society, senseless crime and life itself. They just happen to wear costumes.
It's that eye-opening moment when the film becomes more than simply a frenzied, sometimes entertaining blur of violence; it is an offer of hope for the meek, solidarity for the desperate loners and satiable vengeance for those seeking an outlet for their pain. This is further punctuated by the brash yet surprisingly humble character Colonel Stars and Stripes, the leader of the aforementioned gang of misfits, excellently played by Jim Carrey.
But the movie doesn't have many moments like this, it does seek to say something more than the first film helmed by Matthew Vaughan did. It begins in standard Kick-Ass style: The nerdy Dave (who has somehow managed to keep his girlfriend from the first film) gets a few lessons in badassery from the ultimate card-carrying member, Mindy aka Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), who shoots a few rounds into his bullet proof vest to toughen him up. After he gets over the stun of getting beat (by a petite high school freshman, at that), they share a few laughs and go on to their next challenge.
Mindy teaches Dave everything she knows about street defense, then soon abandons him when she is encouraged by her guardian Marcus, a detective played by Morris Chestnut, to give up her warfare and get back to being a "normal" teenager. After Dave, who takes comfort in the ability to transform behind his superhero gear, tries to persuade Mindy to rejoin the superhero realm to no avail, he sets out on a solo mission to avenge thugs, which is when he meets Colonel Stars and Stripes and his people.
Things are going fairly well for the good guys until they learn their non-violent but aggressive approach to retaliation is no match for Red Mist reinvented as The Motherf%&*^r aka Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the raging lunatic carrying a a serious grudge against Kick-Ass after he killed his dad in the first film. Tripping on his power with his newfound gang of crazies, he concocts a plan for which none of them are prepared.
While the character development and underlying premise of this installment are far more eloquently stated than they were in the first film, KICK-ASS 2, like its characters, suffers at times from a dual identity. It's clear that Wadlow aimed to take the shock value of extreme violence and underage cursing from the first film and turn it up a notch, even showing Hit-Girl throwing a man under a speeding car and The Motherf%&*^r aka's gang wind up a lawnmower and hoist it through the windshield of a cop car. It's over the top and uncomfortably graphic at times, and it's oddly paired with emotional scenes like Mindy struggling to fit in with the popular mean girls clique while simultaneously longing to carry out her late father's legacy as a superhero. It's fine to add this nuance to a film that could be seen as unequivocally alpha nerd male, but its two tones, while strongly written, are equally imperious to the point of fatigue. Wadlow is trying to say so much at once sometimes that by the time we get to a few of the scenes, like when Mindy gets back at the mean girls, they just come off as noise.
But aside from its frequent attempt to show itself as a more hopped up version of the first installment, there are genuine moments in this new film that wonderfully support the chaotic appeal of the masses. Moretz is effectively charming and wild all at once, while at the same time gives the film its much needed heart. The moral compass of the film, however, unexpectedly comes from Carrey, whose militant colonel offers a soft paternal comfort to his crew long even after they venture out on their own. Carrey seamlessly blends his erratic fireman alter ego from "In Living Color" with a more dramatic distinction that could only be attributed to his evolution as an actor. Plus, he still manages to be hilarious.
Mintz-Plasse is part cartoon and part maniac, and he does both extremes quite well. For a relatively small guy like The Motherf%&*^r, who relies on his own hype to intimidate everyone around him, he manages to still come across shockingly evil wearing a costume made out of his mom's kinky leather gear. Meanwhile, Taylor-Johnson is attractive but still lacks the charisma of a more polished actor. He is serviceable as both Dave and Kick-Ass, but not without the help of the rest of the cast that provide more magnetic performances, regardless of screen time.
At the end of the day, is KICK-ASS 2 a fun watch? Absolutely, it's a cinematic rollercoaster that should probably come with a seat belt. But it also approaches topical themes that will resonate with audiences, particularly parents and young adults. While Wadlow's efforts aren't always smooth, in many ways they're a step up from the more one-dimensional original.
Rating: B- (*** out of *****)
KICK-ASS 2 is in theaters Friday.