Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Movies based on superheroes and comic books in general are nothing new, but they have practically dominated Hollywood over the last decade or so. While many of these flicks have been great and I've looked forward to each of their sequels, there was one that I thought would sadly never get a sequel: Kick-Ass. Based on the six-issue comic book written by Mark Millar and illustrated by John Romita Jr., Kick-Ass was a funny, irreverent take on what would happen if someone who loved superheroes tried becoming one in real life.

The movie performed modestly during its theatrical run, but because it wasn't a billion-dollar runaway success like you'd expect out of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I thought a Kick-Ass sequel would be relegated simply to the realm of comic books. But three years later, Hollywood has proven me wrong. Though it may have taken three years and distribution from another studio, Kick-Ass 2 finally got made. I'm legitimately excited to see these characters back on the big screen, so let's dig in and hope that it holds up as well as its predecessor.

Two years have passed since Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) became the masked hero "Kick-Ass." He's since given up the superhero game and started living the life of a normal teenager, but in that same time frame, others have followed in his footsteps and become real-life heroes themselves. Having once again grown bored with his mundane existence, he decides to resurrect Kick-Ass.

Dave has gotten out of shape during his hiatus and realizes he needs a partner to help him train. To do that, he reaches out to his friend Mindy Macready (Chloƫ Grace Moretz). Adopted by her late father's best friend, police detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), she's secretly continued operating as the violent vigilante "Hit-Girl," hiding it from Marcus under the guise of being a normal teenage girl. Mindy puts Dave through a strenuous training routine to get him back into fighting condition, but when Marcus discovers she's still doing the Hit-Girl thing, he forces her to give it up and actually start acting like a regular kid her age.

Dave initially believes that Mindy's forced retirement means Kick-Ass is stuck without a partner. But after meeting and becoming friendly with a fellow hero called Doctor Gravity (Donald Faison), he is welcomed into a band of heroes known as "Justice Forever." Led by Colonel Stars-and-Stripes (Jim Carrey), Justice Forever is a motley crew, but they're an effective one nonetheless.

But community outreach and breaking up the occasional prostitution ring are soon to be the least of Justice Forever's problems. Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has grown disturbingly obsessed with Kick-Ass since we last saw him, to the point that he accidentally kills his mother while throwing a tantrum brought upon by her deleting a news story about Kick-Ass from the DVR. Vowing revenge on Kick-Ass for the death of his father, Chris abandons his old "Red Mist" persona and rechristens himself "The Motherfucker," the world's first card-carrying supervillain. And with his family's vast wealth now at his disposal, he recruits a number of psychopaths and murderers to eliminate Kick-Ass and his merry band of heroes.

I absolutely loved Kick-Ass, and I'd spent the last three years eagerly awaiting a sequel. And now that it's finally here, I can say that I thought Kick-Ass 2 was very much worth the wait. The movie was everything I'd hoped it would be, full of laughs, fun moments, and an entertaining vibe that doesn't let up until the credits roll. I know the movie isn't for everybody, but those who enjoyed the original Kick-Ass movie will definitely enjoy the sequel.

The movie was written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, who isn't exactly the most prolific filmmaker. His only prior feature-length efforts ― the 2006 thriller Cry Wolf and the 2008 MMA-centric movie Never Back Down ― were forgettable movies that never really made much of a splash. But his work on Kick-Ass 2 is very solid despite the somewhat jarring tonal shift from comedic to serious during the third act. Wadlow handles the movie in a way that keeps its energy high and the audience engaged for the entire length of the movie.

However, I didn't think Wadlow took as many chances with the movie as Matthew Vaughn did when he made the first one. Vaughn was willing to take some bold steps with his Kick-Ass movie, but one gets the impression that Wadlow is merely dipping his toes in the water before going for the shallow end. He does a fine job, don't get me wrong. But I just felt that he could have stood to push the envelope further.

Wadlow's script, meanwhile, holds together well. Based on Millar and Romita's follow-up to the original comic, the script takes a few liberties with the source material, but they work. The comic's over-the-top finale in Times Square probably would have been too big for a movie with this modest a production, and our villains murdering a number of children and violently gang-raping a teenage girl simply would have been too much. Waslow changes things in such a way that it doesn't hurt the movie in the slightest, allowing it to work as both a good sequel and a good adaptation of Millar and Romita's comic.

I also enjoyed how Wadlow not only kept the straightforward "good guys vs. bad guys" superhero story, but made it a coming-of-age tale for Hit-Girl as well. Hit-Girl is by and far the most interesting character in both the comics and movies, and allowing the character to have a compelling story arc helps the movie shine. The whole concept of this 15-year-old kid who's spent her whole life being trained as an assassin essentially replacing Lindsay Lohan's character in Mean Girls makes me wish they'd just ditched Kick-Ass altogether and made a Hit-Girl solo movie. That's a movie I want to see!

But when it comes right down to it, the best part of Kick-Ass 2 is its cast. In the title role, Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn't actually required to do much heavy lifting. He's basically doing the same thing he did with the first movie, only playing the character as more confident and self-assured this time around. Taylor-Johnson is very good in the part, though, playing Kick-Ass as being very likable, which is what the character needs.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse, meanwhile, is actually rather off-putting. He plays his character as a whiny, immature goof for the entire movie, but he bounces between that and being a crude, vulgar maniac so much that I had a hard time gauging what he was going for. Mintz-Plasse can be great, and he's trying his hardest here. He's actually pretty funny for much of the movie. It's just that the character is so all over the place that taking the character seriously is nearly impossible.

And much like the last movie, the sequel is completely stolen by two people. One is Jim Carrey, who approaches Colonel Stars-and-Stripes with a charisma and earnestness that scenes without him feel like they're lacking something. Carrey has distanced himself from Kick-Ass 2 due to the movie's violent content coming so soon after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which is a shame because it's some of its best work. He's nothing short of hilarious here, and the movie is better for having him in the role.

The real star of the movie, though, is Chloƫ Grace Moretz. Moretz is an immensely talented actress, and she brings a depth and wisdom to Hit-Girl that is belied by the character's snide, uncouth demeanor. Hit-Girl's story is the most interesting, intriguing part of the movie, thanks largely due to how Moretz chooses to approach it. She's caught between Hit-Girl and Mindy Macready, between her life of vigilantism and crime-fighting and the normal childhood her father deprived her of. Moretz brilliantly displays this internal struggle as she tries to figure out just who she truly is and what purpose she serves in the world. She owns both the roe and the movie, and makes Kick-Ass 2 worth seeing just for her.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Kick-Ass 2 is that it's a legitimately fun movie. You can tell simply by watching it that being entertaining is all it wanted to be, and I think it succeeded. Granted, the movie doesn't have the original's subversive sense of humor, but then again, it doesn't need to. It goes its own way while still maintaining the original's heart and soul, and is a damn fine movie because of it. And if by some strange miracle Hollywood turns Millar and Romita's Kick-Ass 3 comic into a movie, I'll totally be there, front row center.

Final Rating: ****

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Wolverine (2013)

Dozens of characters have appeared in Marvel's "X-Books," the multitude of comics published under the X-Men banner. But out of them all, Wolverine is far and away the most popular. Originally created in 1974 as a one-off opponent for the Incredible Hulk, the clawed Canadian antihero joined the X-Men a year later and soon found himself in the upper echelon of Marvel's A-list players.

The character has followed the X-Men into practically all of their adventures outside of the comic book realm, joining them in cartoons, video games, and eventually in the series of live-action movies. Wolverine's popularity skyrocketed even further after that, to the point that 20th Century Fox gave him his own solo movie in 2009. The downside to that whole thing was that X-Men Origins: Wolverine wasn't exactly all that great, and it would be four more years before 20th Century Fox would dare try giving Wolverine anything more than a cameo in another movie. But they would try again, as evidenced by the new flick The Wolverine. So let's dive in and hope for the best, shall we?

It's been a few years since the X-Men made their last stand. A traumatized Logan (Hugh Jackman) has spent that time roaming the Yukon wilderness as a hermit, haunted by visions of Jean Grey (Famke Jansson) and wracked with guilt over his role in her death. He's approached one day by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mutant with precognitive abilities who has been sent on a mission to bring Logan to Japan.

It is there he is reunited with a dying elderly man named Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi). Decades earlier, at the end of World War II, Logan rescued and protected a younger Yashida during the bombing of Nagasaki. His death quickly approaching and looking to repay his debt, Yashida offers to transfer Logan's healing factor into himself and end Logan's immortality, allowing him to have an honorable death. Logan, viewing immortality as a curse only he should have to bear, refuses the offer, and Yashida dies the next day.

At the funeral shortly thereafter, Logan foils an attempt by Yakuza thugs to kidnap Mariko (Tao Okamoto), Yashida's granddaughter and heir to his influential technology company. Fleeing with Mariko, Logan finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy that involves Mariko's father (Hiroyuki Sanada), a band of ninjas led by Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee), and a toxin-creating mutant called Venom (Svetlana Khodchenkova). And to make matters worse, something has suppressed Logan's healing factor, making his fight to protect Mariko harder than he'd expected.

I approached The Wolverine with a bit of trepidation, afraid that the problems of X-Men Origins: Wolverine would repeat themselves. But I was pleasantly surprised by just how good this new movie is. It's not the best movie in the X-Men saga, but it's both a stark improvement over the last Wolverine solo adventure and a pretty good flick in its own right.

The movie sat in developmental hell for a few years, with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky attached to direct at one point. But the duty eventually fell to James Mangold, who ended up doing a fantastic job crafting the movie. Mangold approaches it in such a way that it doesn't really feel like a typical superhero movie. He isn't making the kind of movie one would expect with a character like Wolverine in the lead role, instead making it more in the vein of a film noir. Mangold actually plays up drama and intrigue as much as he does the prerequisite action sequences, which makes The Wolverine a bit more captivating to watch.

But don't get me wrong, the action scenes are also totally worth seeing the movie for. The Yakuza shootout at the funeral is a lot of fun, while the fight on the roof of the speeding bullet train is one of the most entertaining and exciting action sequences I've seen in a while. Mangold handles these scenes with care, and though there are a few instances of that fast-edited shaky-cam nonsense I complain about frequently, they're all great in their own ways.

The script, on the other hand, isn't quite as consistent as Mangold's direction. Credited to Mark Bomback and Scott Frank (who rewrote an earlier draft by an uncredited Christopher McQuarrie), I thought the script stumbled in a few places, particularly in regards to the characters. Yukio is given a very cool introduction, but is sadly given very little to do after that. The Viper character is given even less, despite apparently being the movie's primary antagonist. Anyway, I'm guessing Viper was supposed to be the movie's main villain, since Bomback and Frank never really make it 100% clear until the climax. Viper only has a handful of scenes, and the Yakuza/ninja/government ends up being frustratingly convoluted.

Fortunately, the movie not only had a decent director, but a very good cast as well. Among the supporting cast, I really enjoyed Rila Fukushima, though I wish she'd been given more to do. Outside of her awesome introduction, all she really does is pop up once in a while and look cute. Fukushima does a great job in these scenes, which makes me wish her role had been beefed up more.

I can also say the same for Tao Okamoto, who I thought did a fine job despite a few instances where her role seems to have been written as "generic love interest." That's more a fault of the script than Okamoto, since she can only work with what she's given. But she does a fine, likable job regardless.

The rest of the supporting cast also contributes good performances, with the exception of Svetlana Khodchenkova. Her character has even less to do than Fukushima's, but unlike her, Khodchenkova doesn't do anything to make her worth watching. She just shows up and recites her dialogue, playing the part like a more boring version of the Batman villain Poison Ivy. It's a dull performance that the movie could have done without.

But on the opposite end of the spectrum is Hugh Jackman. This marks the sixth time he's played Wolverine (that's assuming you're counting his 10-second cameo in First Class too), and his enthusiasm for the role that's defined his career for the last thirteen years continues to be readily apparent. This time around allows Jackman to stretch his acting chops and give Wolverine a level of vulnerability the character usually doesn't get to show. Jackman still gets to play the character as a total badass, but he's not as hardened and rough around the edges as we've seen him before. He makes Wolverine feel as much human as he does beast, which is a nice change of pace.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the movie's 3D effects. It seems like Hollywood's convinced itself that most summer blockbusters have to be in 3D, no matter if it helps or hurts the movie. And for the most part, all 3D does for The Wolverine is add an extra few bucks to the ticket price. I often talk about how movies that are converted into 3D often look flat when compared to movies that are shot natively in the format, and The Wolverine is one of those cases. Some moments, like the bullet train sequence I mentioned earlier, look really cool. But not much is gained by converting the movie into 3D. You honestly aren't missing much by watching the movie in standard 2D.

But you are, however, missing out if you don't see this movie. Flaws aside, The Wolverine still manages to be one of the high points in an otherwise lackluster summer blockbuster season. It's a fun, exciting movie that more than makes up for that less-than-stellar previous Wolverine movie. The movie's uniqueness and lack of overreliance on popular mutants from the comics sets it apart from the others and allows it to do its own thing, letting it be a far better movie for it. And after seeing that scene during the credits, I can't wait X-Men: Days of Future Past to come out. Next summer can't get here quick enough.

Final Rating: ***½