Packing more punch
Kick-Ass sequel offers more high-kicking, hard-hitting action leavened with a little teenage angst
The legendary Pinewood Studios is playing host to Kick-Ass 2. The filming of the sequel to Matthew Vaughn's surprise 2010 hit, adapted from Mark Millar's ultra-violent comic about teenage masked vigilante "heroes", is in full flow. English actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson - returning as the green-and-yellow wetsuited Kick-Ass - is being held by two goons as his old foe Red Mist (reprised by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) punches him. You feel like shouting "Kerpow!"
We're in a cavernous warehouse decorated with red drapes and surrounded by a plethora of boy toys - video-game machines, pool tables, a drum kit, a bucking bronco and shiny new sports cars. It's an adolescent evil lair belonging to Red Mist, who now calls himself The Mother F***er, offering early proof that Kick-Ass 2 has no intention of toning down the more controversial elements of the original. Vaughn's film received criticism for its x-rated language - not least coming from Kick-Ass' ally, Hit Girl.
Played by American actress Chloe Grace Moretz, who was just 12 years old when she shot the role, the high-kicking Hit Girl typified Kick-Ass' irreverent attitude to violence and codes of acceptable behaviour. "In the last film - and I counted - I only cussed six times in the movie, but each time was really pivotal and it meant something," says Moretz, now 16. "And in Kick-Ass 2 it's the same - it's not like she just drops it all the time because she's older."
Moretz, whose star power has increased thanks to roles in Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011) and Tim Burton's Dark Shadows (2012), is well aware that it was Kick-Ass that kicked her career into gear. The 2010 Anglo-American superhero action comedy made US$96 million globally upon its cinema release - turning her and Taylor-Johnson, in particular, into stars.
Whenever she encounters fans, she's made patently aware of this. "They freak out!" Moretz cries. "They're like 'Oh my God, can you hit me or something?! Can you punch me in the face?!'"
If you're a parent, or simply someone concerned about the pervasive influence of screen violence on young children, then you might be concerned at this. But Moretz and her co-stars seem well-adjusted. "I don't cuss in my own time," she says. "It's not a thing that I do - my mum is not cool with that." That said, the swearing in Kick-Ass 2 is "affecting me so much more than it did when I was younger", she admits. "Now it's like 'Argh!' It's getting into my head!"
With Vaughn taking a backseat as producer for the sequel, it's relatively untested writer-director Jeff Wadlow (2005's Cry_Wolf; 2008's Never Back Down) who is charged with marshalling Kick-Ass 2. A fan of the original, the 37-year-old filmmaker knew exactly where to take the follow-up. "If the first film was about creating an alter ego," he says, "this movie is about figuring out who you really are."
While Hit Girl's real-life alter ego, Mindy Macready, must deal with the mean girls of high school, Kick-Ass' Dave Lizewski is left adrift, facing graduation alone. "Everyone else around him has matured and got a future plan, yet he doesn't know what else he's doing," says Taylor-Johnson. "[This time] it's Kick-Ass trying to work out who Dave Lizewski is. Can he take the consequences of his actions and grow up a little bit and pursue [crime-fighting] as his future?"
Part of this comes as Kick-Ass sees his actions inspire a group of copycat homespun heroes - dubbed Justice Forever. Led by reformed mobster Colonel Stars and Stripes (comedian Jim Carrey), they're out to wipe the scum off the streets - in ways Taylor-Johnson promises will satisfy the comic's hardcore fanbase. "The first film was definitely out there and original - it turned heads - and people are expecting to see that level of shock factor. We stand out from any other commercial movie."
Wadlow seems delighted with the way he has moved the sequel away from what he calls Hit Girl's "Hong Kong [action movie] fighting" style to something that wouldn't look out of place in the video game Street Fighter. He cites Walter Hill's 1979 cult action-thriller The Warriors as a touchstone for the fights between Kick-Ass, Red Mist and their allies. "I wanted to see a much more visceral, ground-and-pound style that is less heightened."
It has not all been plain sailing for Kick-Ass 2, however, after comments Carrey made on his Twitter page six months after shooting wrapped. Making reference to the brutal shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December in which 20 children and six adults died, he said of the film "in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence". Sending his apologies he added: "I am not ashamed of it but recent events have caused a change in my heart."
While Kick-Ass creator Millar later used his blog to express his surprise at Carrey's comments, adding that " Kick-Ass avoids the usual bloodless body-count of most big summer pictures", it's clear the Scottish comic book writer's words are not hasty attempts at dousing the public relations fire Carrey ignited. Even on set, long before this furore, Taylor-Johnson differentiates the film's approach. "You can see the consequences," he says, "that people get stabbed and some die."
Likewise, Wadlow is conscious of what his film means in a wider context. "If people are inspired to put on capes and masks and be superheroes, at least in my mind, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to go out and buy handguns and shotguns," he says. "If you pursue that line of thought, Dave should be wearing a flak-vest and a ski-mask, not a green wetsuit."
The filmmakers are doubtless hoping that the movie merely sees an outbreak of copycat fancy-dress - as creator Millar witnessed after the original. "I was on a bus two Halloweens ago and I saw a girl dressed as Hit Girl walking to a fancy dress party, drunk, in the middle of Glasgow. And I remember almost jumping out of the seat. To me that was more exciting than seeing a billboard up in Beverly Hills, because it somehow hit real life."
Talking of dressing up, the new film makes a strong link between the sub-cults of superheroes and S&M, after Red Mist's rebirth is cemented when he borrows his mother's kinky outfits. "I think the whole superhero thing is a fetish," Wadlow says. "Dave puts on this green wetsuit and goes out at night! It all leans into the wish-fulfilment, fantasy aspect of wanting to be someone else. And whether you're being a superhero or cross-dressing, there are similarities."
Back on set, a scene unfolds as Monica Dolan - who plays a member of the Justice Forever team - rescues Kick-Ass from the beating he took earlier. "That's enough from you boys," she says, swiping at the villains who were holding Taylor-Johnson moments earlier.
When she goes ballistic, beating the goons up, Wadlow calls "cut" and the crew all burst out laughing. It seems to sum up the film's vibe: as loud, colourful and crazy as a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Kick-Ass 2 opens on Thursday