Friday, April 16, 2010

Movie Review: "Kick Ass"

To discuss "Kick Ass" properly, I'm going to need to venture into heavy spoiler territory at times. Consider yourself warned.

When I was growing up, superheroes were worth looking up to.

Superman was the iconic boyscout, helping the downtrodden and protecting the vulnerable. Spiderman was the geek kid in all of us, suddenly blessed with amazing powers and able to overcome his insecurities. Batman pursued justice by going to where the police couldn't.

All the heroes had a code. Stand up for truth, justice and the American way. With great power comes great responsibility. Even the Dark Knight had a code of conduct, refusing to brandish a firearm or kill a villain.

In "Kick Ass," the titular hero gives lip service to Spidey's admirable mantra. He then dons a jet pack, graphically mows down dozens of bad guys with a Gatling gun and fires a bazooka straight into a mobster's belly. This is after an 11-year-old girl has shot, stabbed, sliced and diced dozens of thugs and had her face beaten to a bloody pulp by the aforementioned mobster. Don't even ask what her parents think about this...after all, her dad trained her to fight. He also doesn't seem that phased when she uses language that puts sailors to shame, including uttering the two verboten "c-words."

"Kick Ass," from director Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake," "Stardust") is like someone put "Superbad," "Kill Bill" and "Spiderman" in a blender. It's a rather frustrating film to write about. From a technical level, there are some wonderfully fun and visceral action sequences. The film's earliest scenes have a real sense of wit and personality, it's populated with actors doing some truly fine performances and the premise itself is loaded with potential. But the film, based on a comic book by Mark Millar ("Wanted") is so obsessed with being extreme and edgy that it sabotages itself, drawing us out of the film with its vulgarity and carnage just when we're starting to enjoy ourselves.

Like I said, the premise is a lot of fun. High school geek Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is tired of being ignored by girls, mugged by crooks and suffering through his dreary existence. Sitting at a comic book shop with his friends, Dave wonders why no one has ever dressed up in tights and stood up for the oppressed. So he orders a hideous green scuba suit over the Internet and heads out to stop evil-doers as Kick Ass. His first time out, he's stabbed in the stomach and hit by a car. But a trip to the hospital, some metal plating and nerve damage that renders him impervious to pain, and Dave hits the streets again. One of these run-ins finds Dave facing down three thugs. Filmed on a cell phone and posted on Youtube, Kick Ass becomes a cultural icon.

But while Dave is playing superhero, others are training to be the real thing. Particularly Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his 11-year-old daughter Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz). Out to avenge his wife's death, caused by a vicious mob boss (Mark Strong), Damon dons a Batman-like outfit, calls himself Big Daddy and gets deadly vengeance. As purple-haired Hit Girl, Mindy has moves that would make Tony Jaa feel like an invalid, is a crack-shot with a pistol and has wisecracks that would make John McClane take notes. When we meet them, they are having some bonding time, as Big Daddy prepares Hit Girl to take a bullet in the chest. It's okay; after two more rounds, he promises bowling and ice cream.

It's a twisted subplot, but it's played for dry, absurdist humor. Ebert noted in his review that Cage is probably the only person who can make shooting a child funny and he's right. Riffing on the whole kids-as-vigilantes subtext that has existed in comic books since Robin donned his mask and cape, Cage and Moretz's scenes hit a smarter level of satire than the rest of the movie operates on. Cage plays Big Daddy as a nerdy, Ned Flanders-meets-Dirty Harry father figure and Moretz has a wit and timing that are past her age.

The scenes with Dave and Kick Ass are fun, particularly as he draws closer to the girl of his dreams (Lyndsy Fonseca), but only because she thinks he's her gay best friend. Dave eventually crosses paths with Big Daddy and Hit Girl and learns that he's out of his league alongside real-life heroes. But he finds a hopeful ally in Red Mist (Christopher Mintz Plasse), the son of the villain who's out to discover Kick Ass's secret identity. While a few bumbling McLovin' moments still come through, Plasse delivers some of his strongest work here, giving his character a tragic dimension as he seeks to earn his father's approval. Avid comic book readers will know where his arc is going.

The film tweaks not only comic books but superhero movies in particular, with the outlandish and uncomfortable costumes, physically-impossible stunts and breakneck, energetic action pieces. There are moments where the humor and excitement come together brilliantly and, in those moments, the film has an energetic fun and charge to it that fully realize the premise's potential. When Hit Girl dispatches a room of thugs, set to "Sesame Street"-style music, it's a vervy, visceral moment that carries a giddy thrill.

But when the action stops, Vaughn can't seem to settle on a tone for the movie. On the one hand, he seems attracted to the premise of "real-life superheroes" and loves showing Dave being pummeled by thugs and bleeding when he's cut. But the next moment, the mob villains are cartoonish thugs and Kick Ass and Red Miss are mugging for the cameras as they cruise the town. The tonal shifts didn't really bother me until a brutal sequence later in the film, when the movie turns surprisingly dark and grim, at odds with the film's earlier fun, satirical tone.

And I know, tonal shifts are not bad things. After all, "Kill Bill" shifted from giddy exploitation fest to dark Western, and I regard that as one of my favorite movies. And "Kill Bill" is likely going to be one of the films that this is compared to, based on its blood-letting and devil-may-care swagger.

But the difference is that Quentin Tarantino never set "Kill Bill" in anything resembling the "real world." Everything took place in some weird place in the director's brain, a mixture of movie reels and genres that resulted in a stylish, energetic romp where nothing was to be taken extremely seriously. "Kick Ass" posits the idea of "super heroes in the real world" and then becomes just as over-the-top as the movies it lovingly parodies.

And like I said, despite the tonal shifts, the film is well-filmed and acted. It can't be described as "style over substance," because there is a deeper mindset at work here.

Unfortunately, that substance is all-too-often revealed to be vile, as "Kick Ass" peppers its action with vulgarity and gratuitous gore. It has attitude to spare, that's for sure, but it's attitude and desire to be edgy end up sabotaging the film.

"Kick Ass" owes a lot visually and thematically to Sam Raimi's first "Spiderman" film. The color palette, the narration and the humor are all reminiscent of that movie. And as Dave considers being a superhero, we get the same sense of naivety and innocence that Peter Parker had. And then we get riffs on masturbation and constant use of the f-word. Hit Girl shows up and spouts the two aforementioned "c-words." It's as if Kevin Smith finally got his wish to write a superhero movie.

And yes, I'm mentioning that the obscenity offended me. I'm usually not offended by language in a film--heck, "Goodfellas" is one of my favorite movies. But I've always maintained that obscenity should be used if it showcases the reality or is true to the characters. Here, it's a stunt. It's the filmmakers, so intent on being "ironic," that they say "hey, remember how awesome Spiderman was? What if he said the f-word? Or masturbated to thoughts of his teacher?". When Hit Girl uses the vilest of the c-words, it's not because it underscores anything or adds anything to the character or world that Vaughn has created. Rather, it's just that the filmmakers think it's going to be edgy and talked about to have an 11-year-old girl say a word that most adults cringe at.

And yes, I've heard the criticism that people are spending too much time worried about the language and aren't as worried about the violence Hit Girl commits. But I understand the joke here--nothing she's doing is physically possible; Vaughn is having fun with the idea of a young girl outplaying violent thugs at their own game. Like the House of Blue Leaves fight in "Kill Bill" the carnage isn't too disturbing because it's so stylized that we realize much of it is not to be taken seriously. However, Vaughn never seems to know when the line has been crossed and often tiptoes too far over. It's all in good fun to see Hit Girl go hand-to-hand with the mob boss as an equal; it stops being entertaining when he starts pummeling her in the face.

And yet, the graphic nature of the violence also bothered me. In my mind, the appeal of being a superhero is to do impossible feats, save lives and be...well...heroic. Being a murderer never crosses my mind. There's always a chuckle when Spider-man ties up the bad guys in a web; there's something honorable about Batman keeping the Joker from falling to his death, allowing him to stay in a cell rather than lowering himself to his level.

In "Kick Ass," the heroes are not too bad with their fists. But when the third act pulls out the guns and knives, it becomes a bit less joyful and fun. I don't think gore is necessarily a detriment to action but here it's gratuitous and present for shock value. I'm sure some would argue that Vaughn is showing that "when you get hit in real life, you bleed"...but watch the carnage unfold and tell me if you really are seeing reality here.

Of course, when I was a kid my friends and I would pretend to be ninjas. And we'd pretend to slice and dice our foes. "Kick Ass" has that same juvenile quality to it. Rather than appeal to adults who can understand the joy in the initial idea and sort through the satire, it tosses in vulgarity and over-the-top violence to satiate teenage boys who think killing is fun and blowing people away is sweet. And don't try and tell me that the film is R-rated and those kids won't see it; this film's marketing--which portrays it as a fun, light comedy--has been squarely targeted at teens and even kids. Only its title gives the slightest hint that only older folk are prepared for what's in store.

And maybe I'm in the minority. After all, there was a very vocal group in the theater with me that broke into spontaneous applause on four separate occasions. Maybe I'm just old, or maybe I'm becoming more of a prude than I was in my early twenties.

Those things are all possible, but I think there's another reason. I recognized the glimmer of a story that could be told with fun, wit and energy. And on several occasions, "Kick Ass" achieves that promise. But then it succumbs to a desire to please the lowest common denominator, get cheap laughs from the "Superbad" crowd and toss gratuitous gore in to keep its "edge." The seeds are there for a great story; I'm sad to see it settle for this.

But hey, I'll keep my hopes up. After all, established heroes like Iron Man are still on the horizon for this summer. I look forward to them proving that heroes don't need to curse or kill to capture our attention. Till then, I'll remain a prude...I feel less guilty that way.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.