Though not a complete success, Jeff Wadlow's "Kick-Ass 2" is far superior to its predecessor, a blood-soaked surprise hit from 2010 that wallowed in excessive violence and lacked the awareness to turn the film into a post-modern take on the superhero genre.
That's not to say that this sequel is squeaky-clean — far from it — but there's more at play here as the director, who also fashioned the screenplay adaptation of the groundbreaking comic book, delves deeply into questions of identity in a world that regulates us to lives of anonymity.
For those who missed the first film, Wadlow gets viewers quickly up to speed as the title character, a very good Aaron Taylor-Johnson, recounts his adventures as the world's first superhero and how he retired from the streets but is now getting restless and is eager to go out and bust some skulls.
He asks Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), a masked vigilante he has become acquainted with, to help get him back into fighting shape, a task she embraces as she has been feeling a bit lost since the death of her father and partner in crime fighting Big Daddy. Having promised her guardian (Morris Chestnut) to stay off the streets, she has been looking for evildoers without his knowledge, which comes to a quick end once she's caught blood-spattered in her bed.
All the while, Kick-Ass' arch-enemy Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is plotting to avenge his father's death and takes on a new identity, the name of which cannot be published in a family publication of this sort, and begins to recruit a team of super-villains in order to wreak havoc on New York City.
Kick-Ass is recruited to join a similar group devoted to helping others, and it's at this point that the film hits its stride, giving us a group of sympathetic do-gooders who have had their lives shattered in some way and are striving to redefine themselves. Colonel Stars and Stripes (a surprisingly subdued Jim Carrey) is attempting to redeem himself for having been a mob enforcer during his early years; Insect Man (Robert Emms) is a gay man attempting to combat bullying after being an object of ridicule; while Remember Tommy is a married couple (Steven Mackintosh and Monica Dolan) whose son went missing and who hope to prevent this from happening to anyone else. That the film bears more than a passing resemblance to "Fight Club" is one of its most pleasant surprises.
Identity confusion abounds, and it's the primary focus of the film. In an age in which the pressure to conform seems paramount to survival, whether defining yourself in your teen years or complying to adult responsibilities, preventing your sense of individuality from being completely erased seems futile. Each character's life has been altered radically in some way, causing them to question their sense of purpose. It comes as no surprise that they would decide to hide behind masks and delude themselves by adopting a persona with questionable motives.
Kick-Ass and his cohorts insist that they are acting on behalf of the public welfare, and while they have the best of intentions, their actions often lead to more mayhem as it's suggested that their presence has given rise to their foes.
And while these characters are misguided, the ones devoted to evil are more tragic, as their lack of moral conviction leads them to create civil unrest for attention's sake. That they let the media dictate their actions, as they use Twitter and other social outlets to brag of their deeds, is a chilling example of the extremes today's disenfranchised youths go to.
The most intriguing character in the film is Hit-Girl, and only Moretz's skill prevents her from being nothing more than a fetish object. Having been transformed into a lethal weapon by her father at an early age, she's denied the opportunity to embrace her true identity as masked vigilantes operate outside the law, no matter what their moral imperative.
When she's forced to try to be a "normal" high school student, she's unable to assimilate. Once you've tasted blood, it's hard to get excited about joining the cheer squad. Hit-Girl is a tragic figure in the classic mold of Batman and Spider-Man, forever an outsider, dealing with a life that has been thrust upon her rather than chosen.
Like its predecessor, "Kick-Ass 2" has a problem with the way it portrays violence. In no way does it try to assume an ironic, over-the-top approach and instead comes off as brutal and gratuitous at times, though it must be said it is milder than the series' first installment.
Still, seeing a teenage girl flirt with a perspective beau by shooting him in his bulletproof vest-clad chest and seeing someone repeatedly stabbed with shards of glass simply doesn't jibe with costumed characters cavorting about. This disconnect is predominant in our society, what with glorified displays of violence in the media prompting far too many impersonal, vicious actions.
While Wadlow may argue his film is commentary on this problem, he hasn't yet mastered the ability to walk that fine line between calling attention to an issue and becoming an example of it. Still, what the director has to say about forging an identity in today's confused world bears hearing, even if you have to watch his film through your fingers.
'Kick-Ass 2' (3 stars out of 4)
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey, John Leguizamo, Lindy Booth, Andy Nyman, Clark Duke, Augustus Prew and Amy Anzel.
Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow; produced by Adam Bohling, Tarquin Pack, Brad Pitt and David Reid.
A Universal Pictures release. 103 minutes. Rated R (strong violence, pervasive language, crude and sexual content and brief nudity) At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
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"I'm So Excited" a rollicking return to form from director. (3 stars)
What with the disturbing nature of his previous film, the daring "The Skin I Live in," it comes as no surprise that director Pedro Almodovar would want to return to some lighter fare for his next movie. "I'm So Excited" certainly fits the bill as this breezy farce blissfully floats along, riding out its ridiculous premise for all it's worth, while exploring some of the filmmaker's familiar themes with his trademark sense of melodrama and whimsy.
It's important to remember the disclaimer that appears at the beginning of "I'm So Excited" as it states, "Everything that happens in this film is fiction and fantasy and has no relation to reality." With viewers being properly forewarned, they should not be surprised by any of the outlandish behavior or plot twists that ensue. Borrowing liberally from "Stagecoach," "Airport" and even "Airplane!" the plot revolves around Peninsula Flight 2549 en route to Mexico City that has been impaired by a distracted pair of ground crew members (Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, in amusing cameos) that have rendered the craft's landing gear ineffective. Alex (Antonio de la Torre), the pilot, and Benito (Hugo Silva), the co-pilot, are fully aware of this problem and have radioed ahead so that a runway can be prepared for an emergency landing. In the meantime, they've taken to circling the skies, stuck in a pattern of repeated behavior, much like the passengers and crew who are stuck in ruts in their own ruts.
Problem is, the three flight attendants who cater to the business class section, Joserra (Javier Camara), Ulloa (Raul Arevalo) and Fajas (Carlos Areces), find out, and as they're all great drinkers, they spill the beans to the very few passengers in their charge. They include Bruna (Lola Duenas), a psychic who happens to be a virgin; Norma (Cecilia Ross), a demanding passenger with a past; Ricardo (Guillermo Toledo), who is trying to outrun his past; and Senor Mas (Jose Luis Torrijo) who wears a cloak of mystery with ease. Staring death in the face, impulsive behavior, acts of contrition and heartfelt confessions become the order of the day for these tortured souls while Joserra, Ulloa and Fajas do their level best to make them as comfortable as possible during this arduous trip.
It comes as no surprise that all of the characters emerge transformed from their malfunctioning cocoon (sorry, spoiler alert — the plane lands safely), but their efforts at redemption all occur in typical Almodovar style, what with grand gestures and extreme actions being the norm.
One of the more clever gimmicks in the plot is that none of the phones on the aircraft is working, except the one hooked to the intercom, which results in everyone on board being able to hear the entire conversation between both parties. Thus, each passenger who phones a loved one must make his or her confession on a public stage, which adds to the gravity of the act. Also at home here is an odd set of circumstances in which one of those attempting to make amends ends up talking to a current and old girlfriend in a way that could only occur in an Almodovar production.
To be sure, the film is a trifle, but a delightful one nonetheless, as the director delivers high drama, broad laughs and a bit of social commentary (all the passengers in coach have been drugged as they are suffering from "Economy Class Syndrome" and simply can't bear the shame).
And while the humor is ribald and gleefully ventures into the land of the offensive whenever it can, "I'm So Excited" can be forgiven as it reminds us that the only way to live life is by embracing the person you are, a theme that Almodovar has championed over the course of his career and never gets tired of preaching.
"Sea of Monsters" a bland, rote exercise. (2 stars)
Fox 2000 Pictures had its hopes set high for the "Percy Jackson" series; what with all the novels being bestsellers among the teen set, it had all the earmarks of being the next "Harry Potter." With all of the failed launches that were touted in the same way (How about the "Lemony Snicket" series or "Beautiful Creatures" from earlier this year?), it becomes increasingly obvious just how unique and well-made the "Potter" films were, and while I liked most of the first "Percy Jackson" movie, it certainly didn't set the domestic box office on fire, taking in $89 million. So why in the world has a sequel been made? Quite simply, to satisfy foreign markets, which turned the film into a hit as it raked in nearly $138 million overseas, sending the total gross for the project past the quarter-billion-dollar mark.
With that sort of interest, you would have thought that Fox would have put a bit more effort into the follow-up, "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" and with the studio's investment ($90 million), you would expect a better-looking film done with a bit more energy.
However, as directed by Thor Freudenthal and blandly acted by the returning cast, all involved seem to be fulfilling a commitment rather than looking to set the movie world on fire. Moving at a deliberate and at times tedious pace, "Sea of Monsters" is a bland affair that looks as if it were cheaply done on the fly with little enthusiasm.
The story gets off to an intriguing start as we see the protective border of Camp Half-Blood (for the uninitiated, this is where all demi-gods go to get training) breached by a raging mechanical bull (if I didn't know any better, I'd swear my stepson Nathan did the computer work for this creature in our basement, but I digress ). Seems the mystical tree that casts a spell of protection around the camp is dying, and the only thing that can heal it is the Golden Fleece. Despite grave warnings, Percy (Logan Lerman), his would-be girlfriend Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and his Satyr buddy Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) head out to retrieve it, though they must venture into the treacherous Sea of Monsters to do so.
The problem that plagued the first film carries over to this one, that being that it cannot escape the fact that all the characters and all they go through is hopelessly derivative in nature. There's nothing here that we haven't seen done better before, whether it be in the "Potter" films, the "Lord of the Rings" series or even the "Journey to the Center of the Earth" movies. If you're going to embark on a quest, it better be epic in nature in order to capture the interest of today's audiences, and the little jaunt that Percy and his crew undertake comes off as a trip to the corner store for a gallon of milk. It's predictable, lacks excitement and what with the cheaply rendered monsters that must be vanquished, there's never a sense that they're ever in peril.
Having opened softly at the box office here (a $14 million take over its first weekend), it seems as though word is out that there's no magic at play here. Whether those with a less discerning eye in other lands embrace the film, thus demanding a third installment, and damning me to waste another 100 minutes of my life, remains to be seen.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski and on his blog. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.