It's all in the execution. Matthew Vaughn's KICK-ASS was a profane, unabashedly violent celebration of vigilante justice that worked as a sort of smirky DEATH WISH for the superhero set. Based on the Mark Millar comic book, its protagonist, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), was a loser kid who, out of "a perfect combination of optimism and naivety", transforms himself into a masked Paul Kersey. That was the hook. What made it special was the introduction of Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz), an eleven-year-old girl trained by her ex-cop father Damon (Nicolas Cage) to be a whirling dervish of death known as Hit Girl. In the wrong hands, this material could've been morally reprehensible; as adapted by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, it connected emphatically on a visceral level, and never once attempted to be anything more than a deliriously gory lark.
Jeff Wadlow's KICK-ASS 2 gets it all wrong. Working from subsequent issues of Millar's comic, this installment assumes we want to see Mindy dealing with the psychological repercussions of her father's vengeance-obsessed approach to child rearing, and Dave struggling under the weight of being a justice-dispensing inspiration to a legion of fascist kooks. In between excessively brutal set pieces, characters are constantly stressing that they live in the "real world"; they agonize over their true identity like every other alter-egoed superhero of the last century. What was irreverent and unrepentantly juvenile in the first film is now meant to be taken somewhat seriously. One moment, we're meant to laugh at an attempted rape; a couple of scenes later, we're asked to be outraged over the aftermath of said rape*.
Whereas KICK-ASS sent up the conventions of comic book movies, KICK-ASS 2 lazily embraces them. There's not much left to spoof this time out, so Wadlow just amplifies the shock element, which clashes with his wrongheaded desire to deepen the central characters of Dave, Mindy and Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who goes bondage-geared supervillain as The Motherfucker. Dave joins up with a ragtag crime-fighting collective led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), which places him on a collision course with Chris's gang of psychotic thugs (the most notable being a female Russian bodybuilder known as "Mother Russia"). Meanwhile, Mindy heeds the demands of her guardian, Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut, taking over for the first film's Omari Hardwick), and attempts to be just a normal fifteen-year-old girl.
Mindy's arc underscores everything that's wrong with Wadlow's approach. If we really cared for Mindy's well-being, we'd want the young woman to walk away from the superhero lifestyle for good and participate in the society she was ostensibly protecting. But we don't want Mindy to get better; we want her to revert to the limb-severing madness induced by her father. That's entertainment. It's also akin to rooting for terrible things to happen to Paul Kersey so he can get back to gunning down ghetto thugs, which places this film squarely in the realm of DEATH WISH 2. That's just never a good place to be.
Wadlow brings a reasonable degree of skill to KICK-ASS 2's fight scenes; they're cleanly choreographed and shot, and suggest that he has a solid career ahead of him as a director of mindless action movies (he could be his generation's Sheldon Lettich). But Wadlow is ill-equipped to handle the wild tonal swings, and embarrasses himself with the film's big comedic moments. The picture's nadir involves Mindy tasing her mean girl tormentors with a "sick stick" in the school cafeteria; the resulting spew of shit and vomit is so ineptly rendered via bargain-basement CG that it can't even work on a basic gross-out level. (This entire storyline plays like Michael Bay's HEATHERS.)
The only worthwhile aspect of KICK-ASS 2 is the surprisingly subdued work turned in by Carrey as Colonel Stars and Stripes. Though he's as heavily made up as a DICK TRACY villain, he finds in his ex-mob muscle character a touchingly low-key mixture of compassion and righteousness (we only see the viciousness when he tortures a sex trafficker). At first, he seems like a viable mentor figure for Kick-Ass (a complement to Dave's flesh-and-blood father), but then it quickly becomes apparent that he's just revenge-bait. It's a strange squandering of talent. If this was all that was on the page initially, I have no idea why Carrey would commit so fully to such a minor character. But regardless of the actor's pre-release crisis of conscience (citing the Sandy Hook massacre, he declined to promote this firearms-laden film), this is a fine performance. Sadly, no one in the movie comes close to matching it.
The problem with KICK-ASS 2 is that it should've never been made. The first movie was as much accident as triumph, and left little room for a viable series: Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit Girl were garish inversions of superhero archetypes (Spider-Man, Batman and Robin); they served their parodic purpose, and should've been put out to pasture with Ted Striker and Frank Drebin. But what's particularly galling about KICK-ASS 2 is the quality of its transgression. It's a mean-spirited movie from people with impoverished imaginations, a $20 million "fuck you" from the kid who microwaved the family cat.