Friday, April 16, 2010
“Kick-Ass” (opening April 16 throughout San Diego) is like an oasis in a desert of lame ass Hollywood fare. It’s funny, violent, unapologetic, and in your face.
Scottish comic book writer Mark Millar flipped off readers with his graphic novel “Wanted.” There was an edgy arrogance to that work that made it fresh as well as pumped up with attitude. “Wanted” came out in 2003. Five years later Millar delivered the “Kick-Ass” comics, which have an attitude all their own.
“With no power comes no responsibility,” says Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), riffing on Spider-Man’s famous line. Dave is a teenager who’s only “super power” is his ability to be invisible to girls. But he poses this question: Why hasn’t anyone ever tried to be a superhero? After all people love to read comics about superheroes so why doesn’t anyone ever try? Because you’d be dead in a day is the answer he gets from his two nerdy friends. But that doesn’t deter Dave. He orders a green and yellow scuba suit and sets out to save the world. Unfortunately, vigilante justice ain’t easy. So his first time out he ends up getting stabbed and knocked out of commission… but just for a little while.
Dave decides to pursue his dream of being a superhero. So he decides to call himself Kick-Ass and with a little help from the Internet and social media, he becomes something of an overnight sensation. He sets up a MySpace page and attempts to answer all his online requests. He also hopes that his superhero persona will get him the girl of his dreams. But Dave doesn’t realize that the bad guys out there can be really bad and genuinely dangerous. In addition, there are some vigilante crime fighters out there that are far more serious -- and lethally competent -- than him. So when Kick-Ass gets in another jam, he’s embarrassed to be saved by a pre-pubescent, purple-wigged girl who goes by the name of Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). Unlike Kick-Ass, this girl really kicks ass. And Hit Girl is aided by Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage).
You could call “Kick-Ass” an anti-superhero film. It definitely has a comic book look and feel, and definitely taps into the superhero mythos but it doesn’t really deliver a superhero story. And that’s the point Millar was trying to make. Director Matthew Vaughn (Guy Ritchie’s producer and director of “Layer Cake”) delivers on the action and provides enough eye candy to keep the action junkies satiated. But if you pay attention the message he's tapping into from Millar's comic is that trying to be a superhero and administer vigilante justice is both dumb and dangerous. People get hurt in this film and the violence is not all sanitized. When Dave gets stabbed it looks real and it looks like it hurts. Vaughn plays scenes like this with an uncomfortable yet effective mix of pain and dark comedy. It looks like it hurts but we can't help but laugh because what Dave's trying to do is pretty stupid. He's a skinny kid trying to stop hardened criminals from committing a crime.
There are times when Vaughn pumps up the action to ridiculous levels in order to get the audience cheering and hollering so that they don’t notice that fact that the violence is brutal. And “Kick-Ass” most definitely has its share of deliberate comedy. Yet Vaughn continually shows us that trying to stop crime can lead to a lot of people getting hurt and killed. The director stops short, though, of being quite as critical as the comic is about vigilante justice, and he does opt for what’s much more of a Hollywood ending than the comic.
Much of the film's humor comes from the pint-sized Moretz as she repeatedly demonstrates her toughness whether it’s taking shots from her dad in training or using her girlish wiles to get past bodyguard doormen. The incongruity of Hit Girl is a delight and it’s refreshing to have a very different role model for young girls besides the wimpy Disney bratz. If I had a daughter I would wish for one with Hit Girl’s balls. She’s tough, smart, competent, and even a loving daughter.
Hit Girl has raised eyebrows for both her propensity for violence and her foul mouth. I read a commentary from a Women and Hollywood post in which the writer wondered whether Hit Girl was a step forward or backward for the female gender. The image of a young girl daring to use the "C" word (Horrors!) and daring to take the same delight men have been taking for decades in dispensing violent retribution has been seen as new and shocking. Well it might be new and shocking to audiences accustomed to Hollywood films but it’s a familiar sight in many Asian films and anime. A Japanese schoolgirl in a short skirt and wielding a sword or kicking some ass could almost be called a cliché in that country. But Hit Girl does play as something fresh in Hollywood films. Plus Moretz is great. She manages to be tough yet vulnerable, cute but never cloying or icky sweet. She can also act grown up while still being a kid unlike most of the precocious Hollywood kids you see in films. She’s a delight.
“Kick-Ass” is also fun because it mixes up genres. You get a coming-of-age drama combined with a teen comedy and then have comic book and action elements thrown in for good measure. The characters are well enough drawn that you care about them even when they are not wearing their superhero costumes. The cast is also kick ass. Johnson gives Dave some genuine emotion to keep his story compelling. Moretz as I said is a joy and she plays well off of Cage as her daddy. Cage hilariously affects an Adam West-like stilted delivery whenever he dons the Batman-like superhero costume, and he also reveals a very loving paternal side to his character. The father-daughter relationship here is actually well played and likable. Mark Strong makes for an easy-to-hate villain who’s also a bad father figure to his son.
Although not as pronounced as in the “Wanted” comics, “Kick-Ass” does a little flipping off of its readers and now viewers. Both the comic and the film make fun of the cult of celebrity in this media addicted and obsessed society. Kick-Ass gets popular through a cell phone video that goes out over the web through YouTube. People click to watch the video but no one at the scene of the crime seemed the least bit interested in helping Kick-Ass stop a group of men from beating up someone. Kick-Ass/Dave tries to lecture the people on their apathy but to no avail. They are only interested in him as something fun to watch on YouTube.
In addition, Kick-Ass and another superhero Red Mist maintain MySpace pages while live webcam broadcasts gain the attention of millions (especially when violence is involved). Vaughn both feeds into this and comments on it. People eagerly watch a broadcast where people are getting tortured. The TV news broadcasts the web video and reluctantly cuts away after they realize what they are broadcasting could turn into a snuff film --but they make sure to let everyone know that they can continue watching online. The film highlights our obsession with violence and then feeds it with some fun, over the top, frenetic action sequences. Critics may say this is schizophrenic and is what’s wrong with the film, but I think that schizophrenia is deliberate and reflective of what’s going on in our culture right now with real and fake images commingling to such a degree online that people just treat it all like entertainment.
Fans also get poked fun at in the film for their obsessiveness. Immediately after Kick-Ass debuts on YouTube, there are Kick-Ass costumes and comics available in the stores. The film pokes fun at the commercialization of Kick-Ass and people’s readiness to buy into it. But the film also punishes fans in a sense and when one fan dresses up like the superhero he idolizes, there are some very painful and terminal consequences. That's the price of cult obsession in the world of "Kick-Ass." So the film and the comics are critical in a way of their own fans. You could say Millar is biting the hand that feeds him but he's so cocky in the way he does it that people may not realize the joke's on them or they will take the criticism in the same cocky style it is delivered and say f-ck you back to Millar and go ahead and make "Kick-Ass" a cult hit.
“Kick-Ass” (rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use - some involving children) is hilarious and brutal and even provocative if you are willing to look beneath the surface. It delivers a kick-ass action flick that feels more like 3D than most of the recent films actually employing the technology yet it also manages to comment on the violent action it creates and celebrates. Oh and it has a great soundtrack as well.
Companion viewing: “Spider-man,” "The Losers," "Rambow"