From a studio perspective, the glimmering beauty of adapting Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s first Kick-Ass graphic novel was the fact that it was essentially a turn-key operation. So cinematically minded was their work, so plot-twisting was their story, one only needed to plug in the right actors and get a director who understood the strange brew of comedy, drama and hyper-violence to produce a minor hit.
Only, there’s another thread at play in the Kick-Ass saga that must have given these same enterprising studios a certain pause. Part of Millar’s twisted-up re-imagining of the super-hero universe, populated entirely by normal, non-powered crime fighters, was his refutation of that very concept in the form of Hit-Girl, a foul-mouthed 10-year-old supreme assassin, trained by her father in the ways of torture, mutilation and mayhem, who almost instantly stole the series right from under the titular character’s masked nose. It was precisely that kind of unexpected perversity — along with Romita Jr.’s blood-and-guts drenched panels — that powered the series into its cult status amongst fanboys.
Even tacked with an ‘R’ rating, the first film drew howls of protest from a swarm of critics — including Roger Ebert — who found the gratuitous violence and impossibly bad language from the mouths of babes too much to bear, but even so, the final film was a good deal mollified from its even-more-over-the-top source material.
For this sequel, the producers had a different problem to address. In the comics, Hit-Girl remains in that sixth-grade realm, for this film, Chloë Grace Moretz, who plays her, had quite noticeably aged into solid teen-hood by the time of filming. How do you keep Millar’s deliciously demented vision of the character, even as she’s growing right before our eyes?
Cleverly enough, writer/director Jeff Wadlow has taken this obstacle and turned it very much to his advantage. After all, what begets hyper-violence more than a surge of hormones? As the film opens, Hit-Girl is in the process of training Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in the ways of becoming a real fighter. She beats him up repeatedly, shoots him in his Kevlar-covered chest with a .45 and sends him off on a brutal mission involving him donning pimp-fur and strutting around a rough neighborhood. That is, before her guardian (Morris Chestnut) finds out about her ditching school and makes her promise to go straight, leaving the purple tights and stiletto knives behind in favor of living like a normal, angst-ridden teen girl.
Meanwhile, their arch-nemesis, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and what is it with everyone in this young cast utilizing triple names?), the former Red Mist, has decided his true course of action should be to become the world’s first super villain, and dubs himself “The Motherf—–r,” assembling a team of evil muscle to do his bidding, including the former KGB she-hulk, Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), who proves equal amounts savage and formidable.
Kick-Ass, meanwhile, lonely without his supremely talented young partner, latches on to a new group of fellow powerless heroes, lead by a former Mafia member turned righteous born again champion, Stars & Stripes (Jim Carrey), who dub themselves “Justice Forever.” Eventually, the evil the Motherf—–r concocts with his cohorts begins to hit entirely too close to home for both Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl, and they have to strike back or risk losing everything that matters to them.
It is a strange and difficult recipe to get exactly right: enough loose comedy to be amusing, alongside enough stringent violence to placate a pack of rabid wolverines, all consecrated with a series of blood-spattered Important Life Lessons for our teen heroes to learn for themselves along the way. The books, being comics strictly for mature readers, get to run their perverse joy without having to break stride; the films, clearly attempting to appeal to a somewhat broader audience, have to curb some of Millar’s more brutal flights of fancy (excised, for example, is the Motherf—–r’s gunning down of a group of completely innocent schoolchildren; gone, too, is his rape of Kick-Ass’s love interest; both of which, it must be said, were not sorely missed) while not fully alienating the considerable fanbase the comics have engendered.
It says here that Wadlow, a young director with a promising future, gets it about right. If the film lacks some of the daring verve of the comics, it also dispenses with some of Millar’s more sadistic elements without entirely losing the anarchic fun of the series. He also adds a few original flourishes of his own, including a scrawny out-of-the-closet superhero who goes maskless (and nameless, as far as I could tell) but brandishes a pair of effective tazer rods; and a weapon Hit-Girl deploys to dispatch some bullies in her high school that leads to the film’s most puerile and sophomoric visual gag.
Even if you get past the high levels of violence, the film has its drawbacks. For one thing, I’m not sure that Moretz, for all her professional craft and accomplished facial scrunchings, was ever quite right for the character (her line readings still suggest Hit-Girl’s filthy epithets don’t easily come out of her mouth), but she seems a bit more comfortable within the teen confines of her character this time around, and the newly buffed up Taylor-Johnson and reedy Mintz-Plasse, a whiny comic foil par excellence, spin happily through their paces. When it does falter, its almost always because Wadlow keeps attempting to inject earned wisdom into his characters (“You don’t have to be a bad-ass to be a superhero,” Hit-Girl tells Kick-Ass. “You just have to be brave.”).
Despite his occasional bouts of earnestness the film remains supremely bloody fun that will doubtlessly re-ignite the violence debate all over again — though I doubt as many people will object to teen ultra-violence as they did the elementary school variety. No one is saying it’s a film that should appeal to everyone, and for that, we should all be eternally thankful. To hell with the focus groups, for once, and rejoice in the carnage.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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