Kick-Ass 2: Balls to the Wall
I groaned inwardly when the Kick-Ass sequel was announced; a completely unnecessary follow-up to an original that didn’t demand continuation. That Matthew Vaughn wasn’t returning as director reconfirmed this response; he brought a sense of fun and heart to a movie that could otherwise have been wholly misconceived (like the way no one else seems to have been quite able to make a great X-Men movie lately; First Class had personality, whereas the other entries since X2 has been going through the motions). Balls to the Wall, written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, isn’t actually as terrible as I’d feared, but it’s wholly redundant, roundly failing to justify revisiting these characters.
The first movie was crude, vulgar and revelled in the shock value of having a young girl mouthing obscenities while inflicting ultra-violence on unsuspecting bad guys. Now that girl is at school, attempting to fit in, and this is the plot thread of Balls to the Wall that kind of works; Mindy/Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), having forsaken the superhero lifestyle, is thrown into a sub-Heathers inferno of teenage cruelty, while also discovering she’s attracted to boys. It isn’t terribly original, but neither is Kick-Ass/Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) joining up with a gang of fellow super-heroes/vigilantes (why Dave needs to learn how to fight all over again here – twice! – is anyone’s guess) while Chris/the Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse; only actors with three-word names take the leads in this series) decides to reinvent himself as a super villain. The result is replete with the kind of lazy comic book sequel referencing the Scream sequels supplied for horror movies (but more successfully). The pervading air is of “how can we make a sequel work?” rather than “We’ve got a great reason for continuing this story”.
Everything that was fresh now feels tired. What was shocking now seems like cheap repetition. Just the name Motherfucker evidences the level of wit on display. The dodgy superhero/villain names (Night Bitch, The Tumor etc) were more amusing in Mystery Men fifteen years ago, and Mystery Men wasn’t really very good. Wadlow (working from Mark Millar’s source material, which apparently revels in its capacity to shock the readser) finds himself laying on even the half-decent gags too thick (“You’ve got to quit with the racist stereotypes, Chris”, John Leguizamo’s Javier tells the Mother Fucker; “Archetypes” he responds). Occasionally there’s a flash of the first movie’s successful contrasts between comic book and “real” world; the Motherfucker’s insulted reaction when it is suggested he kills the dog belonging to Captain Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey). But Wadlow’s idea of a theme is to repeat ad infinitum that there aren’t superheroes in the real world, all the while informing the viewer with the choreography, fight moves, set pieces and a generically stylised visual palette that this is a superhero world.
The violence of the first picture, where Kick-Ass takes a beating or where Hit-Girl goes to work to the accompaniment of the Banana Splits theme, is delivered dutifully but without motive, and so has an unpleasant edge. It can’t shock because it could only shock the first time. So now these scenes feature because they’re what the audience expects of a Kick-Ass movie (this isn’t as bloody as the original, but I’m still not sure how it gets away with a 15; God knows what the BBFC are thinking). Tellingly, the most effective Hit-Girl scene here isn’t one where she kicks ass but instead induces a trio of mean girls to vomit. There’s also the small factor that Hit-Girl’s language has little impact delivered by a 15-year old; four years makes all the difference. And when the best she can come up with as an insult is “Puke face” you start to wonder. The coarse language between schoolgirls is more effective, but indicative of an unpleasant undercurrent in respect of the depiction of women in the film, with references to snatch-kicking, muff munching and a would-be rape that is played for laughs on account of the assailant’s inadequacy (considerably toned down from Millar’s original scenario, but no more acceptable as a result). For a movie as schematic and manipulative as this one (Dave’s emotional journey includes an especially under-cooked development that never sufficiently pays off; we’re presumably expected to think the mere fact of its occurrence is weighty enough), such material doesn’t translate as daring or edgy; it’s merely evidencing how lucky the first effort was to have Vaughn.
Johnson, Moretz and Mintz-Plasse return to their characters fairly effortlessly, but the latter is utterly typecast as the nerd du jour at this point; I’m slightly surprised he’s gone on as long as he has (what, eight years?) Jim Carrey, who famously disassociated himself from the movie, is solid if unspectacular as Stars and Stripes; his physical transformation is impressive, and he never drops the character to indulge in his usual schtick, but the Captain isn’t a terribly interesting character. Barely anything is made of his Born Again disposition, for example. Lindy Booth is memorable as Night Bitch, and a smattering of British thesps appear in small roles; Benedict Wong, Iain Glen, Steven Mackintosh, Monica Dolan.
Balls to the Wall is very cheap looking. Tim Maurice-Jones cinematography is unpersuasive, and there’s a pretty awful fight sequence atop a speeding van complete with horribly obvious green screen work. In general, the tone is one of straight-to-video cash-in whose stars should have known better. Even the score sounds recycled, the really rather great four composer-led work on the original now limited to Henry Jackman redoing the (admittedly great) main theme from the first with Matthew Margeson.
I don’t think anyone really expected there to be a Kick-Ass sequel apart from the reliably self -promoting Mark Millar. Kick-Ass didn’t make enough ($96m worldwide) for it to be a forgone conclusion, so someone obviously did a sum based on the home entertainment market. Since this one cost about the same but made a third less, and wasn’t very well received I expect there’ll be even less clamour for another. I’ll be happy to forget about it, while holding up the first movie as a genuinely great little surprise. Maybe in 20 years, when studios are dusting off old properties that have a lot of nostalgia value (as they always are), a return of Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl might have some merit, but for now they should just leave it alone. No matter how much Millar talks them up.