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Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Kick Ass 2 #1

by Steve Habrat

Anytime someone asks me to list off a few of my favorite superhero movies, I always make sure to include director Matthew Vaughn’s full-throttle 2010 offering Kick-Ass among my top picks. I am a huge fan of the controversial original, loving it so much that I even included it in my top ten films of 2010 list. I found the film to be a hugely entertaining sugarcoated parody of the superhero genre and a work that had its fingers firmly on the pulse of the new teen generation. Plus, it features two must-see performances from Nicholas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz. It should come as no surprise that news of a Kick-Ass sequel grabbed my attention and had me very excited. After a little over three years, Kick Ass and his merry band of misfit teen superheroes and super villains return in Kick-Ass 2, a surprisingly rushed and flawed follow-up to the anarchic original. There’s no denying that Kick-Ass 2 is plagued by flat filmmaking, sloppy scenes, one very shaky performance, and way too many characters to flesh out, but the film still manages to be a madcap rush, all while smartly lampooning a generation brought up on the glow of an iPhone screen, social media, One Direction, and bath salts.

Picking up a few years after the events of the first film, comic book fanatic Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Taylor Johnson) has decided to retire his Kick Ass persona. He shuffles through school in a daze thinking back on his run as a high-profile superhero and considers hopping back in the saddle. After some contemplation, he decides to reconnect with former ally Mindy Macready AKA Hit-Girl (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), who is now in the care of her deceased father’s closest friend, Sergeant Marcus Williams (played by Morris Chestnut). Mindy agrees to help get Dave back on his feet but she is quickly forced to hang up her cape after Marcus discovers that she is still taking to the streets as the ferocious Hit-Girl. It doesn’t take Dave long to discover that his Kick-Ass persona has inspired a slew of costumed vigilantes that are eager to pick up where he left off. Fellow masked vigilante Dr. Gravity (played by Donald Faison) soon recruits Dave to join the vigilante group “Justice Forever,” an organization run by the mysterious Colonel Stars and Stripes (played by Jim Carrey). Meanwhile, Dave’s former superhero partner Chris D’Amico AKA Red Mist (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is busy plotting his revenge against Kick-Ass. Redubbing himself The Motherfucker, Chris begins recruiting a gang of psychopaths that will aid him on his quest of tracking down Kick-Ass and destroying New York City.

With Vaughn out of the director’s chair and serving only as producer, the Kick-Ass franchise has been handed over to Jeff Wadlow, the man responsible for such films as Cry Wolf and Never Back Down. Wadlow quickly proves that he has a handle on action-oriented sequences of Kick-Ass 2, as the same blood-drenched carnage that cut through the original film quickly comes roaring back with a vengeance. There are a number of stand out scenes including a back alley brawl that manages to capture some of the giddy shock that pulsed through our first encounter with Hit-Girl, back when she hacked through a living room of thugs as the inexperienced Kick-Ass looked on in absolute disbelief and horror. There is also a claustrophobic fistfight between “Justice Forever” and a room of seedy gangsters (capped off with a dog chewing off a gangsters unmentionables), a fiery suburban battle between the hulking Mother Russia (played with gusto by Olga Kurkulina) and a slew of cops (wait for a visual gag including a lawn mower), and a massive final showdown that looks like Wadlow took a bunch of neighborhood kids to see the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, told them to go home and make their own superhero or supervillian costumes, and then take to the streets to duke it out. It’s all very entertaining and guaranteed to put a smile on your face, that is, if you can stomach blood, spit, and chunks of flesh flying across the screen.

Kick Ass 2 #2

While the action is good and gory, Kick-Ass 2 really begins to clutter itself with numerous characters that all seem undercooked. The first time around, Aaron Taylor Johnson was the star of the show and everyone else was just a colorful supporting player, but with this film, he has to share the limelight with Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl. Johnson is still bursting with lovable geeky charm and its fun to see him with sharper fighting skills when he throws the green wet suit on, but when Chris D’Amico begins targeting his personal life, his character’s inner struggle with throwing on the mask seems snubbed. Meanwhile, the heavy focus on the fan favorite Mindy/Hit-Girl is certainly welcome, but it seems like it is treading on the toes of Dave’s story. Mind you, Mindy’s plotline is still clever, one that reflects upon her pursuit of a normal life and trying to fit in with the popular girls at school. Moretz is such a talented young actress and she brings real bite when she is forced to turn the tables on the cheerleading clique that dares wrong her. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Jim Carrey as the scene-stealer Colonel Stars and Stripes, a born again ex-mob enforcer with some foul chompers and a habit of taking a baseball bat to the REALLY bad guys. Carrey is really only in the film for about twenty minutes, which is a shame because you want to know more about him. Instead, his backstory is relegated to a handful of exchanges between other “Justice Forever” members that he has taken the time to mentor.

Perhaps the weakest player in the cast is Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris/The Motherfucker. There is no doubt in my mind that Plasse absolutely loves this role, but his over-the-top approach to the character begins to feel cheap after a while. His character is built simply to shock at every turn, making you long for something to really drive his evil scheme. It doesn’t help that his comedic timing seems to be on the fritz. As far as the supporting players go, Faison is on point but underused as the smiley Dr. Gravity, returning cast member Clark Duke has softened as Dave’s best buddy Marty/Battle Guy, Robert Emms is fidgety as the homosexual do-gooder Insect Man, and Lindy Booth is bubbly and sexy as the femme fatale Night-Bitch. Booth’s Night Bitch is established as a love interest for Kick-Ass, but by the end, its gone without a trace. As far as the bad guys go, Kurkulina is pure roid rage as the one-woman-army Mother Russia, Andy Nyman is pure sleaze as The Tumor, Daniel Kaluuya is wasted menace as Black Death, and Tom Wu is filler as Genghis Carnage. Basically, all most of them are asked to do is march behind Plasse and scowl into the camera, although there is a bad ass battle between pint sized Hit Girl and stone cold Mother Russia. The most cringe-worthy character of all is probably Augustus Prew’s Todd, Dave’s dim former buddy who joins sides with The Motherfucker and then acts surprised that he did. It’s about as underwritten as characters get, especially ones that double-cross their buddies.

While some botched supporting characters and graphic violence play tug of war, the intimate moments are the ones that really could have used more attention from the filmmakers. There are times when heartfelt exchanges feel like they were written with graphic novel dialogue and it doesn’t help that some of these scenes feel like Wadlow simply aimed his camera at one of the Kick-Ass graphic novels and hit record. The best of the serious-minded moments comes when the “Justice Forever” team takes turns explaining why they decided to put on masks and fight crime. It may be a slightly lazy double for brief character development, but a few of the stories do strike a chord and have an eerie sense of realism about them. The saving grace to the bland presentation and stiff dialogue is the fact that, once again, the project dares to prod teen culture of today. Overall, amidst the numerous problems that plague Kick-Ass 2, there is still some enjoyment to be found. Carrey hits the crazy button with an oversized Acme hammer and then whispers warm advice that cuts right to the heart of our young heroes, the action is just as crazy/disturbing/cool as it was the first time around, and you just gotta love that Hit-Girl. If you’re in the target audience or willing to keep an open mind, Kick-Ass 2 will make for a passable night at the movies.

Grade: B-

Kick-Ass (2010)

by Steve Habrat

Kick-Ass was one of the best films of 2010 and nobody even realized it. In a year that was loaded with middle of the road releases, Kick-Ass stood out because it dared to be a little different and refused to conform to what a normal superhero film should be. It was a blast watching the little monster Hit-Girl curse like a sailor and rack up an impressive body count. It was an unexpected surprise to see Nicholas Cage TRYING again and actually giving a performance that wasn’t flat out laughable. In the wake of its release, Kick-Ass was caught in a flurry of controversy over the language and the violence that all came from children, some of the outrage being a little overblown. This is a movie, folks! Boasting a well-written and highly intelligent script based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., Kick-Ass is a scrappy black comedy that tips its hat to comic book fans all over while also holding up a mirror to our YouTube/social media crazed society. The film also doesn’t hesitate putting you through the emotional ringer.

Kick-Ass introduces us to ordinary teenager Dave Lizewski (Played by Aaron Johnson), who is just another comic book fan that likes to hang out with his buddies in the local comic shop and discuss fanboy topics. He voices his frustration over the fact that ordinary citizens refuse to intervene when a crime is being committed. In his spare time, Dave begins putting together a vicious alter ego called Kick-Ass. Armed with a modified bodysuit and a fancy MySpace page, he takes to the streets of New York City to confront neighborhood bullies who prey on the weak. While his first day on the job ends with a brutal stabbing and a hit-and-run that puts him in the hospital with permanent nerve damage, he begins training himself to be better at confronting small time crooks. After intervening in a gang attack, stunned bystanders record Dave’s heroic actions and he becomes an overnight celebrity. Dave soon catches the attention of the heavily armed and heavily trained father/daughter duo Big Daddy (Played by Nicholas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Played by Chloe Grace Moretz), both who act as masked vigilantes and aim their attacks at local mob boss Frank D’Amico (Played by Mark Strong). As the trio launches attacks on D’Amico, they find themselves approached by D’Amico’s son Chris (Played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who has taken on his own alter ego Red Mist and aims to break the group up before they can take his father down.

Maybe Kick-Ass worked its way into my heart because I absolutely love the way the film tips its hat to countless superheroes yet at the same time isn’t content with just celebrating comic books. Director Matthew Vaughn pays tribute to spaghetti westerns, Quentin Tarantino, and teen comedies, all which mix quite well if you ask me. The movie has a twisted love story at its heart, forcing Dave to play gay after his initial embarrassing encounter with two neighborhood thugs. He has the hots for Katie Deauxma (Played by Lyndsy Fonseca), who is oblivious to Dave’s feelings for her and just sees him as a friend. The fact that Kick-Ass deals with some extremely raw emotion is what really makes it so great. On the surface, Vaughn cooks up a vivid cartoon filled with vibrant colors and lots of blood thrown in for fun. Yet he never shies away from giving the film lots and lots of heart. We really feel for the grieving Big Daddy and Hit-Girl and there is a longing to be just one of the guys in Chris D’Amico’s heart. We can really stand behind Dave’s noble quest to protect those who can’t protect themselves, even if he does get his ass handed to him every time he tries. The real heart wrenching moment comes near the end of the film, when our heroes begin to understand the loss that they will face in their quest to clean up the streets of New York.

While the film follows Johnson’s Dave, the real stars here are Cage and Moretz. They sneak in and steal the entire film away from Johnson. Cage is wonderful as a grieving father who has to put on a happy face for his daughter. When he is suited up as Big Daddy, who looks like Batman on a budget, he speaks and moves very robotically and it is downright hilarious. There are moments where he is asked to get real savage and he is most certainly game to do so. He gets a fight scene in the middle of the film that is both awesomely hardcore and horrifying at the same time. Moretz is a little hellion as profanity spewing Hit-Girl, a character that is almost a little too awesome for words. She rips through a room of bad guys with such ferocity that would make muscle man heroes blush. It helps that Moretz, who was very young when this film was released, has impeccable comedic timing and has such a way with stinging one-liners. Thankfully, the novelty that this is all coming from a little girl never once wears off. Some may call the performance irresponsible but I say it is absolutely brilliant and a breath of fresh air.

While much of Kick-Ass may belong to Cage and Moretz, Johnson and Mintz-Plasse do their absolute best not to be completely forgotten by the audience. Johnson does soft-spoken nerd very well and he is a pro at playing ordinary. He quickly realizes that he has gotten in over his head, especially when he begins mingling with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. I was thrilled to see the fumbling and bumbling Dave finally get his moment to be a hero by the final showdown. Mintz-Plasse shies away from playing lovable dweeb and instead plays an outsider just looking for a friend. It is sad to see him slip over into his father’s shadowy operations. I was glad that Vaughn never relied on him solely for laughs and gave him some room to show audiences he is capable of more than just smartass wisecracks. Mark Strong as Frank D’Amico is handed a fairly cliché gangster role but he leaps into the part with so much enthusiasm, he morphs the character into a snarling cartoon, making him an unforgettable villain.

What is ultimately the best aspect of Kick-Ass is the fact that these characters, while operating in a cartoon world, are flesh-and-blood individuals that are capable of getting hurt and bad. One character gets hurt when jumping off of a dumpster while Kick-Ass himself hesitates from jumping from one building to another, his stomach dropping when he takes a gander over the ledge. The film really gets interesting when one of the major characters is killed off halfway through the movie and the characters are overwhelmed with grief. Kick-Ass reflects on the idea that in this day and age, anyone can make a difference as long as you are armed with a camera and a social media account. You can be as ordinary as could be but with a little bit of drive and motivation, you can do anything you want. It may not always be easy and we are going to fall down, but we have to be willing to get back up and try again. Sound juvenile and incredibly familiar? It is but in a time when trying just isn’t cool anymore, it is a message that needs to be repeated. Overall, Kick-Ass is an of-the-moment adrenaline rush that plays by its own rules, making it one unpredictable puppy.

Grade: A-

Kick-Ass is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

by Steve Habrat

It’s a great time to be a fan of comic book movies. The quality of these products have never been better and in the wake of The Dark Knight, there has been a scramble to craft another megahit superhero film that can submit both the spectacle and the complex storytelling that the mighty The Dark Knight mixed so brilliantly. While May’s Thor surpassed many of the recent releases as downright entertaining even if it was a bit hollow, the closest to perfection is without question X-Men: First Class. I always wrote off the X-Men films mostly because I found them to be quite inaccessible and their only appeal was to X-Men fanboys who were familiar with the countless hoards of mutants invented by creator Stan Lee. What ultimately rubbed salt in the wound was the flimsy origin tale Wolverine, which seemed to exist simply to be an indulgent pet project for the limitedly talented Hugh Jackman. It also put the bullet in the head of the X-Men film franchise.

Rejoice, fanboys! Marvel has cleaned house in their quality control department (Did you SEE some of the movies they were releasing before this summer? Seriously? Elektra? Ghost Rider? Anyone?!) and brought in Matthew Vaughn, the competent director of such films as last year’s underrated gem Kick-Ass and the ferocious dark comedy/gangster pic Layer Cake to shock the franchise back to life and infuse it with some fresh blood. Paired up with Bryan Singer, the director of the respectable X-Men, X2, and the lifeless Superman Returns, the two make a heady, personal, flashy, and swinging thrill ride that turns out to be the best origin film for superheroes since 2005’s Batman Begins. X-Men: First Class is set during the Cold War and finds itself besting the recent Cold War superhero extravaganza Watchmen in almost every way. It’s funny that this film would be the knockout punch to Watchmen, which many consider to be adapted from arguably the greatest graphic novel ever written.

Marvelously weaving history with the atomic age heroes, X-Men: First Class harkens back to when Professor X (Wanted’s James McAvoy) meets arch-nemesis Magneto (Inglourious Basterd’s Michael Fassbinder). Professor X, or Charles as we know him here, is a beer swilling genius whose groundbreaking studies on mutants is earning him a large amount of notoriety from the academic realm. Magneto, or Erik, is a bitter, shattered victim of the Holocaust. He is subjected to cruel experiments after it is discovered that he can manipulate metal. Erik vows revenge on the evil scientist who tortured him as a boy in a concentration camp. Jumping ahead into the early 1960s, a CIA operative discovers that mutants exist and are hell-bent on igniting nuclear war. The CIA seeks out telepathic Charles to locate and round up an army of mutants and train them to battle against the Hellfire Club, lead by one of the greatest superhero villains since Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn as the Joker, Sebastian Shaw (an undeniably wicked Kevin Bacon). Shaw can absorb kinetic energy used against him, which grants him super strength and speed.

In writing, it sounds absolutely absurd. The film is aware that it is absurd and embraces its own absurdity, which remarkably, makes it impossible to resist. It’s campy one moment and the next; it’s ominous and heart wrenching. Perhaps Vaughn and Singer studied at the Chris Nolan school for superhero directors, because like The Dark Knight, the film features an electrifying climatic stand off that, as layers pull away, reveals one horrifying revelation after another.

X-Men: First Class also ends up breaking the golden rule when it comes to big budget blockbuster films—it has many subtle personal flourishes from its makers, mostly stemming from Singer, who is an open homosexual. The film becomes a rallying cry for acceptance from society. This actually adds to the power of the film, giving it a voice rather than just opting for the businesslike route it could have so easily taken. Marvel and the filmmakers have embraced some depth and given the characters some fleeting personality. While some of it is brief, the film does take place during a time when homosexuals were facing a great amount of prejudice as at this time, the American government deemed homosexuals un-American. Funny enough, the mutants face an eerily similar dilemma in the show-stopping climax.

This is a summer movie, after all, and the film does offer up its fair share of summer movie moments. The film becomes a showroom for stellar special effects, but Vaughn makes sure he does not loose his characters in all the action. The performances from its young leads are the true reason to see the film and they will leave you wanting a hell of a lot more. James McAvoy plays the party boy genius Charles with some unforgettable charm. And Michael Fassbinder flexes his acting muscle as snapping from sinister to heartbroken in the blink of an eye as Erik. One scene in particular hints that in the future, this man may have an Oscar in his possession. And bombshell Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique continues to prove that she is, in fact, more than just a bombshell and a serious actress even if she is spending much of the movie nude and blue. I also cannot ignore the impressive turn from Kevin Bacon, who plays one self-centered and cold-hearted bastard.

The X-Men series has finally returned to form and has left this guy wanting much, much more from it. Even at 132 minutes, it feels too brief and will have you hounding for a sequel if it doesn’t lure you back to experience it all again. While some of the characters are not fleshed out enough, you are willing to forgive as the film is taking on quite a few characters. It does it’s best and it’s best shapes up to be one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. You’ll be replaying the aerial battle between Beast and Azazel in your head for days. It thrills you to the core, but it will also creep on your emotions, which any great film should do. With expert direction and a seriously well-written script, X-Men: First Class strikes a perfect balance between blockbuster and character driven epic. You will not be disappointed. Bring on the sequel. Grade: A

X-Men: First Class will be available on Blu-ray and DVD September 9th.