Kick-Ass 2 suffers from the cinematic equivalent of penis envy. This mildly disappointing but nonetheless entertaining movie's brilliant predecessor was such a pleasure-inducing, Dirk Diggleresque whopper of a movie that this sequel feels shackled by an abundance of awe and reluctance to step free from its sizeable shadow.
Photos of deceased characters like Nicolas Cage's Big Daddy and Mark Strong's Frank from the 2010 original dominate the screen in the early stages, along with numerous verbal and visual references to past events we've witnessed. An overriding sense of regression lingers over proceedings, which largely focus on the emotionally turbulent domestic lives and 'daddy issues' of Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Dave/Kick-Ass, Chloë Grace Moretz's Mindy/Hit-Girl and Christopher Mintz-Plasse's Chris/Red Mist.
When the latter inadvertently kills his mother, he adopts a new identity - The Mother F**ker - and recruits a group of similarly immoral cohorts to seek vengeance against the two teenage rivals for the murder of his villainous father Frank at the end of the previous film. This predominantly involves a reign of terror on the local community building to the inevitable showdown, with echoes of the glee-filled antics of Jack Nicholson's Joker.
Meanwhile, Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl are both enduring the customary 'coming of age' narrative. The character developments of the young heroes simply aren't engaging enough and Kick-Ass, despite the metal rods in his vertebrae, comes across as rather spineless at times. Their selfish actions often serve to shed the sympathy built up beforehand, although Taylor-Johnson and Moretz deliver performances that are both earnest and plucky enough to ensure we ultimately want them to make their nemeses (literally) s**t themselves.
Moretz even gamely contends with a crass piece of cross-promotion in one extended sequence involving her nasty 'mean girl' school friends exposing her to a music video by drippy X Factor faux-band Union J - who are responsible for the movie's official theme song. The amusingly risqué proclamations by the group that they are "soaked" by the experience of watching the video at least helps to momentarily swipe aside the sense that this marketing ploy is drenched only in embarrassment.
Many headlines have been generated by Jim Carrey's decision to speak out against the violent content of Kick-Ass 2, in which he has a supporting role as vigilante crime fighter Colonel Stars and Stripes. Equipped with a quiff that would make '80s Rick Astley weep, Carrey delivers an understated turn that will subvert expectations from those expecting an onslaught of face-pulling histrionics and shouting.
The most interesting aspect of Carrey's role is watching it within the context of his recent comments, which give extra significance to lines he delivers like "Try to have fun, otherwise what's the point?" prior to launching a brutal attack on a group of nasties.
But the problem with the violence in Kick-Ass 2 isn't to do with the moral context - it lies with the overfamiliarity of the actions depicted. Much like the novelty of hearing a young girl call people "c**ts" in the first movie, the explicit acts of bloodshed perpetrated by the unlikely participants have lost a lot of their power to shock or thrill. A lot of old ground is retrodden here, although director Jeff Wadlow has a keen eye for dynamic, visceral sequences. His strategy of interspersing long shots during action scenes with close-ups of a combatant's intense gaze works fairly well.
Perhaps the movie's key fault lies in a plot structure that takes far too long to pit the protagonists Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl directly against the antagonist Red Mist/Mother F**ker. Until the climax their narrative strands barely converge, imparting a directionless feel to the movie that a stream of expletive-strewn wisecracks and visual gags can't quite compensate for.
Fortunately, regular laughs are provided by the dastardly antics of Kick-Ass 2's saviour - The Mother F**ker. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who should legally change his name to 'McF**kin' as a homage to this and his iconic Superbad role, throws himself into the fetishistic costume with admirable gusto and provides frequent hilarity despite the often shocking nature of his character's evil actions.
One member of his nefarious crew, Mother Russia, also provides plenty of visual treats through her method of dispatching victims, making Brigitte Nielsen look like Brigitte Bardot. Olga Kurkulina's turn as the brutal blonde helps to compensate for our wavering interests in the fluctuating fortunes of the leads, and it's hard not to relish her kicking their asses.
Focusing on a movie's strengths can be tough for any sequel that fails to live up to the expectation and hype. Kick-Ass 2's idolisation of its predecessor merely compounds this problem. Overfamiliarity does not breed contempt here, but it does provoke disappointment. But there's still enough ingenuity and wit on show - plus Christopher Mintz-Plasse's hysterical performance - to make this a diverting, if not fulfilling trip to the cinema.