There's plenty of ass-kicking in Kick-Ass 2. It's not terrible ass-kicking. In fact it's fairly decent ass-kicking. Speaking as someone with VHS tapes of nothing but dozens of Yuen Clan fight scenes stripped of whatever context they once had and chaotically compiled into their own homemade not-narrative of face-kicks and skull-breakage, my vote is always for more ass-kicking. So good going, Kick-Ass 2. You almost deliver an acceptable amount of grade-B ass-kicking.
But then there's this whole movie trying to get in the way of the ass-kicking. That is a problem.
In this sequel that behaves like a reboot that behaves like a confused puppy chasing its own tail, Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has given up his amateur superhero status to focus on high school. However, his sidekick, Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), doesn't want to abandon her secret identity at all. She wants to honor her dead father, Big Daddy, and disobey her guardian (Morris Chestnut) with more crime fighting, an extracurricular far preferable to dating boys and fashion-rolling with the Mean Girls. At the same time, Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey) gathers up the teen vigilantes for his Justice League-style crew just as Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) embarks on a mission of vengeance, assembling his own team of supervillains and renaming himself The Mother$@#^&!. A showdown ensues. But to what end?
Stuck on that question, positioning itself as both comedy cheerleader for mindless vigilante violence and then as half-serious commentary on the same misguided ideas, the film changes its mind about what it is and what it wants to be from moment to moment. It commits to nothing more pressing than the task of recruiting fresh audience members who'll reliably confer a buzzy cultural status, a tipping point in the service of better box office and, ultimately, Kick-Ass 3.
The confusion spills over onto its characters, with Taylor-Johnson appearing disinterested in the task of carrying a film, Moretz forced out of her battle costume for much of the running time and Jim Carrey's fascinating born-again Christian warrior (and his awesome masked dog) sidelined. And just when the script muddles itself into a corner, extreme violence breaks out as a distraction.
Worse, by assuming audiences need to be brought up to speed on the story so far -- not an unfounded assumption, as it's an act of charity to think of the first installment as a thing that lots of people actually saw -- the entire project feels like an endless game of starting over. And over. Reminders provided, plot points rehashed, and endless chatter about identity issues presumably cleared up in the first film. You thought The Amazing Spider-Man felt like it arrived too soon? Well, this is a second chapter that comes off like a desperate do-over.
But still, there's that ass-kicking. It's nasty and hard-R violent, which counts for something, somewhere. Just not enough for here or now.