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Kick-Ass 2

(2013) ** R
103 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Jeff Wadlow. Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey, Clark Duke, John Leguizamo, Morris Chestnut, Garrett M. Brown, Donald Faison, Augustus Prew, Lyndsy Fonseca, Lindy Booth.

/content/films/4570/1.jpgKick-Ass, a franchise concurrently playing out in comic books and movies, has always walked a conceptual tightrope. As dreamed up by Mark Millar, Kick-Ass explores what can happen when real people, in the real world, don masks and capes to fight crime, but in its style of execution, Kick-Ass is gonzo, deliberately larger-than-life.

In the hands of Matthew Vaughn, who directed the 2010 film, this delicate balance bristled with creative energy and wicked black humor, but like a joke told twice in a row, the sequel has lost much of its predecessor's potency. Adapted from the Kick-Ass 2 and Hit Girl comics of Millar and illustrator John Romita, Jr., the film Kick-Ass 2 isn't quite sure what it wants to say about vigilante violence, but says it loud all the same.

Aaron Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz return as Dave Lizewski and Mindy Macready, a.k.a. Kick-Ass and Hit Girl. Now classmates at New York City's Millard Fillmore High, Dave's a senior and Mindy a fifteen-year-old freshman. Dave has taken a break from being a superhero, but he wants back in, and needs Hit Girl to train him into fighting shape. Hit Girl loves being a hero, and considers it a moral obligation in honor of her dearly departed father (Nicolas Cage, greatly missed). But her guardian, police Sergeant Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut) can't abide Hit Girl, and guilts her into retirement.

So Dave teams up with "Justice Forever," a superhero team led by born-again Christian crusader Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), even as Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) reboots as a supervillain with an unprintable name and an agenda of taking murderous revenge on the unwitting Dave. These situations provide plenty of opportunities for politically incorrect laughs and gleeful ultraviolence, but despite feints at social critique, Kick-Ass 2 skews uncomfortably close to being the movie equivalent of that infamous video game Grand Theft Auto.

Even so, Kick-Ass has lost most of its transgressive charge along with its element of surprise and its heroes' disturbingly unwavering conviction. A fifteen-year-old Hit Girl doesn't carry the shock value she did at age eleven, and while an initially amusing Carrey is meant to fill the void left by the nutty Cage, Colonel Stars and Stripes never quite pays off as a character. It doesn't help matters that the new screenwriter-director, Jeff Wadlow, lacks Vaughn's directorial finesse, especially in the rhythms of the narrative and the choppily edited fight sequences.

Give this to Kick-Ass 2: it's never boring, with its go-for-broke humor and deep bench of colorful characters (including Donald Faison's cheery vigilante Doctor Gravity; D'Amico's "Alfred" Javier, nicely underplayed by John Leguizamo, and Dave's friend Marty, again played by Clark Duke). The lunacy's just not as inspired as it used to be.

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