Friday, April 16, 2010

Kick-Ass

I'm not going to claim this is the best movie of the year, or the best comic book movie of all time (I've warned against that before). But I will say that I had an absolute blast in the theater, and I think at year's end I'll be debating whether I had more fun in Tron Legacy, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The Expendables*, or Kick-Ass.

Kick-Ass
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse


Brief backstory for the uninitiated: Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. created a comic book version of Kick-Ass back in 2008. Director Matthew Vaughn secured the rights to the film before the comic was even published, and began working on the movie at the same time that Millar continued work on his comic series. Vaughn shopped the script around to various studios, but due to the graphic violence (mostly involving children), the studios suggested Vaughn change the film to a PG-13 movie and cut the character of Hit-Girl completely. Luckily for us, Vaughn decided to independently finance the film outside of the studio system so he didn't have to compromise his vision; after the film was finished, he screened some of the movie at 2009's Comic-Con to rave reviews. Vaughn returned to the studios to secure distribution rights, and eventually Lionsgate decided to pick up the movie for release. The lesson here? Matthew Vaughn is the man - having the balls to finance something yourself and not compromise your vision will almost always equal a superior product.


Now that the history lesson is over, let's get to the plot. Dave Lizewski is a teenager living in New York who, "like most kids [his] age, just exist." He's kind of a geek, reads comics, is bad with the ladies, and fantasizes about his English teacher. Dave, played admirably by up-and-comer Aaron Johnson, wonders aloud to his friends why no one has ever tried to become a superhero. Eventually, he buys a scuba suit, sets up a MySpace page taking crime fighting requests, and dubbing himself "Kick-Ass" in the process.

Here's where it gets interesting - up until this point, the movie has taken itself pretty seriously. It presents a realistic world with real consequences and treats the brief high school segments with a nice authenticity. But - MINOR SPOILER - when Kick-Ass is violently hit by a car in his disastrous first outing, the movie becomes a meta-narrative on the very nature of comic book films. Thanks to his injuries, Dave is imbued with a borderline superhero ability to withstand pain: his broken bones have been fixed with metal rods and some of his nerve endings are shot, causing Dave to compare himself to Wolverine when he glances at his X-rays.

Near this point, we're also introduced to Big Daddy (a rare post-Y2K solid performance from Nicolas Cage) and the already-infamous-in-the-media Hit Girl (played wonderfully by Chloe Moretz), a father/daughter team of what could only be described as actual superheroes. With the introduction of these characters, Kick-Ass abandons its realistic aspirations and embraces what the movie truly is: a hyper-violent self-aware comic book film. Big Daddy and the 11-year-old Hit Girl are an updated version of Jean Reno and Natalie Portman from The Professional; Daddy trains daughter to be an efficient killing machine. One particularly cool sequence details their family's backstory in a quasi-3D that didn't require glasses (it's a more advanced version of this effect, in which the camera rotates around and shows the individual elements as fully-realized shapes instead of just a 2D layer).


Enter the villainous Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), a cartoonish seedy crime boss, and his son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who eventually becomes a fake superhero named Red Mist. Strong has secured his place on my "actors to watch" list thanks to performances in Body of Lies and RockNRolla, and he is perfectly cast here. Mintz-Plasse is convincing as the aspiring bad guy desperate for his father's approval, and does some good work in this flick. The former McLovin' is finally stepping out of his Superbad shadow with good turns in Role Models and How to Train Your Dragon, so I think he's making a transition out of the "one-hit wonder" category.


If I didn't know any better, I'd say Kick-Ass was made by someone who began watching films in 1990 but has only ever seen action flicks, comic book blockbusters, and the occasional comedy. It relies heavily on The Matrix in terms of style and even lifts settings outright from the Wachowskis' classic (a lobby fight, Kick-Ass and Red Mist's final fight scene, the jet pack "shooting through the window" scene, etc). That being said, I think Kick-Ass is going to be very well-received right now, but might not hold up as well over time (and certainly not as well as The Matrix).

I had some problems with this film, most notably the romance between Dave and Katie. Due to a series of circumstances too ridiculous to list, everyone at Dave's school believes him to be gay - even Katie. She wants Dave as her gay best friend, and he plays along so he can spend time with her. Eventually (as I'm sure you can guess), they become more than friends, but that relationship always felt like the weakest aspect to this movie.

SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REST OF THIS REVIEW


My favorite scene in the film was the hallway fight near the end. Hit Girl makes her way into the lair of Frank D'Amico and corners herself into an almost inescapable situation where she has her back to multiple men with guns. While I thought the more reasonable outcome would be Kick-Ass returning at that exact moment to save her, apparently Vaughn and company had a different idea. In a scene that would make Tony Jaa raise his eyebrows, Hit Girl completely eviscerates every single guy in that hallway, stimulating my audience into loud bouts of cheering. For those still on the fence about seeing this movie, imagine the "gunkata" fight scenes from Equilibrium and you'll have a decent idea of what to expect.


Also of note: Hit Girl's introduction (getting shot in the chest by Big Daddy), her fighting introduction (in the apartment), and the first-person sequence in which she saves Kick-Ass using night vision goggles (executed better than some video games I've seen). Actually, I'll go ahead and say that every scene Hit Girl is in can be counted among the best parts of the movie. I also liked the True Lies callback at the end with the bazooka, and Nic Cage's Adam West-inspired delivery when he embodies the character of Big Daddy.

This is an interesting movie; it has the potential to deliver some insightful commentary (and it does, to a small extent), but instead decides to take a hard right into ridiculous territory and chooses to just cut loose and give the audience what they want instead of providing brief glimpses of what we want between message-heavy moments. Even taking my problems with the film into account, I'm definitely glad I paid money to see this in a theater. Until next time...

*A trailer for The Expendables came on before Kick-Ass, but I closed my eyes and clamped my ears shut. I'm hoping that I can avoid any sort of marketing before opening day: I'm going in fresh for this one.

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