Warning: explicit language ahead.
It's like Batman said: "It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me." That philosophy is found all over "Kick-Ass 2," a high school dramedy masked as a hyper-violent and hyper-vulgar comic book movie. It isn't perfect, and it's certainly not as shocking as the original. But when "Kick-Ass 2" succeeds, it does so with style.
Directed and written by relative newcomer Jeff Wadlow, "Kick-Ass 2" takes place a couple of years after the original Matthew Vaughn-directed film, and focuses on the same three leads: every-day loser and superhero pioneer Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), still enamored with the world of costumed vigilantes; pint-sized killer Mindy Macready (Chloe Moretz), now a couple of years "removed" from the Hit-Girl game; and Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), darkened by his father's death and ready to seek vengeance against the almighty Kick-Ass.
Ghosts from the past are all over the latest "Kick-Ass." All of D'Amico's deplorable acts (though none quite as deplorable as his actions in Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s comic book series) stem from his need to take over the family crime business. Macready, meanwhile, wrestles with maintaining a superhero presence while trying to honor her late father's dying wishes. And then there's Lizewski, a young man who isn't quite done with the tights game, because he's yet to feel the worst consequences of his actions.
Wadlow's script takes its cues from Millar and Romita Jr.'s "Kick-Ass 2" and "Hit-Girl" series, but isn't afraid to make some important departures. As the self-named Motherfucker, Mintz-Plasse's villain stops just short of the absolutely loathsome actions his comic book counterpart is known for -- just short, in one case. The writer-director's adaptation also merges some characters -- Colonel Stars and Lieutenant Stripes unite in the form of Jim Carrey's star-spangled-bat-wielding Colonel Stars, for example -- and gets rid of others, streamlining the story fans already know from the paneled page into a much more palatable package.
The hyper-violence remains, as does the filthy language. "Kick-Ass 2" never quite reaches the original "Kick-Ass'" levels of shock and awe, but it comes close. Wadlow has a way with words that packs a serious punch when uttered by folks like Mintz-Plasse and Moretz. He has a gift for fight choreography, too, plotting action scenes that revolve around a solid center. One early scene sees Hit-Girl beating up some bad guys, starting by impaling a mugger's foot with her spear, a touchstone she frequently comes back to throughout the fight. "Kick-Ass 2" doesn't strap on the jet-pack or break out the rocket-launcher, no, but Wadlow knows how to use simple ingredients to bring the pain.
But it's not the imaginative blood-letting and swear-spewing that makes "Kick-Ass 2" a winner. It's the film's use of genre conventions of both the comic book movie and the high school dramedy. You can lump "Kick-Ass 2" just as easily with "Watchmen" and "Avengers" as you can with "Heathers" and "Clueless." Much of the film is about how outsiders like Mindy struggle to blend in with crowds that don't want them. No matter how gifted or talented a person is, acceptance is an uphill battle that can't be won without a long look in the mirror. At its core, "Kick-Ass 2" is about looking in that mirror, seeking acceptance in the reflection, and acting accordingly. The results are often touching, and often hilarious. As much as Wadlow can direct an action scene, he can cut to a character's emotional core -- a very positive sign for folks keeping an eye on the filmmaker's "X-Force" adaptation.
Taylor-Johnson and Moretz are old pros in their roles as Lizewski and Macready, barely skipping a beat as they return to the world of "Kick-Ass." Mintz-Plasse's transformation into the brutal and unforgiving Motherfucker is a harder sell, not because of his performance, but because of the character's fairly one-note nature. (Even without the animal brutality and the sexual violence, the Motherfucker is mother-fucking unbearable.) Carrey's Colonel Stars is a standout even without a ton of screen-time, though he never quite hits the highs of Nicolas Cage's turn as Big-Daddy. But even without Cage in the movie, his specter looms large over the proceedings, informing every move that Hit-Girl makes, and ultimately inspiring Kick-Ass as well.
"Kick-Ass 2" is not fun for the whole family, but it's a lot of fun for folks who enjoyed the original. It jumps right into the proceedings without a moment to waste, immediately picking up the tone and world of the first "Kick-Ass" and barreling forward like a bat out of hell. It asks important questions while living up to the title's kick-ass promise, masking high-school tropes in capes and cowls, to the point that even the film's climax is basically a house-party gone horribly wrong. At the end of the day, "Kick-Ass 2" is a worthy ride, a rare case of an adaptation rising above its source material, and a solid blockbuster to finish out a solid summer season.
"Kick-Ass 2" opens August 16.