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'Kick-Ass 2': Second installment's a minor improvement ...
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies

It's not especially difficult to suggest that "Kick-Ass 2," the sequel to 2010's 'Kick-Ass," improves on the original.  That film, directed by Matthew Vaughn and based on Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s grungy, grisly, grim-and-gritty indie comic book of the same title, was a thoroughly tired film, fraught with four-letter words ladled with relish over the tropes and tales of four-color comics. This follow-up, directed and written by Jeff Wadlow, isn't as mean-spirited, violent or sneeringly contemptuous as "Kick-Ass" was and actually makes more than a few interesting points about its characters and its world. Which the first film decidedly did not.

"Kick-Ass 2" continues a few months after the events in "Kick-Ass" -- after teen comic-book fan Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) first leapt over several reasons not to in a single bound and became a costumed crimefighter and, considering his lack of any special skills, training or abilities, got his head handed to him by thugs and toughs faster than a speeding bullet. But after meeting the similarly-inspired but far better-prepared team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage doing a hilarious Adam West riff) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), Kick-Ass (Dave's superhero I.D.) actually did some good, even if it involved fighting his friend-turned-costumed-villain Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), killing Chris' gangster dad with a rocket launcher and the death of Big Daddy.

Bing: More about Chloe Grace Moretz | More on Aaron Taylor-Johnson

"Kick-Ass 2" is both cynically aware of what it is and idiotically clueless; early on, comic-book fan Dave notes "If I was ever thinking about a Kick-Ass sequel, I had to get serious ..." It's a slow, bloodshot post-modern wink -- but wouldn't a comics guy like Dave say "second series," "reboot," or "re-launch" instead of "sequel?"  Dave starts training with Mindy -- aka Hit Girl -- but she's trying to fit in at high school, so she has problems of her own. Dave finds a similar group of citizen do-gooders -- such as Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey) and Battle Dude (Clark Duke) -- who patrol New York's mean streets. Chris, meanwhile, changes his name from Red Mist to something unprintable, wearing a mostly-black costume made out of his late mom's fetish gear, and recruits a group of like-minded nutjobs with names such as "Mother Russia" and "Genghis Carnage" that, as Chris's bodyguard and aide-de-camp Javier (a wasted John Leguizamo) points out, are a little racist; Chris defends them as 'archetypes.'

Making the film work are moments like that -- and the way Mindy, finally a normal teen, can't deal with a rush of hormones to her heart and head as easily as she can block and dodge a flurry of fists to her face. You can feel some intelligence and wit and commentary in "Kick-Ass 2," as  Wadlow is able to put a little thought into Millar's tedious, shallow sketches of violence and cynicism.  Of course, this being an American summer action film, "Kick-Ass 2" slumps and stoops into the action-filled, thought-free 'big finish' mandated for these sorts of films these days and has to forget how smart it was; the end of "Kick-Ass 2" is both weary and wearying in equal measure.

As for our actors, Taylor-Johnson is as inert and lifeless as ever; he occasionally apes Tobey McGuire's mumbly Peter Parker line delivery to comedic effect, but he's hard to care about. (At least, this time, Kick-Ass doesn't disappear from his own movie for 40 minutes like he did in the first.) Moretz is still the finest young American actress who apparently has no idea how to read a script. While she's still charming and effervescent and eager, her being good in very bad movies is starting to look less like an accident and more like a disconcerting trend. There's blood and guts and curses and cuts, and while it's still broad and boring and badly shot, it's still much better than the sleazy, lazy film that came before. The final moments of "Kick-Ass 2" make it clear that if audiences want more, they can have it; what the entirety of "Kick-Ass 2" fails to make clear is why audiences would want more of this franchise's unfunny comedy, low-to-no-brow cultural "commentary" and sloppy, sweary fight scenes.

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James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.

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