Friday, April 16, 2010
Movie review: Kick-Ass
In which vengeance is served up by an 11-year-old girl ... and we like it.
There are a lot of barriers that have come down in regards to what's acceptable in movies over the years. Thanks to the Hays Code, about the most risque thing to appear in movies made before the early 1960s was Rhett Butler uttering "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" in Gone with the Wind (and even that was cause for controversy). By the time the '80s rolled around, nudity and strong violence were starting to pop up in PG movies, which brought about the advent of the PG-13 rating.
Nowadays, pretty much anything save for actual sex goes in mainstream movies, but even I, a film lover, was caught off-guard when I found out a movie was being released with the title Kick-Ass. Sure, "ass" is a relatively benign profanity (and it's been used -- twice -- in recent years with the Jackass movies), but something about that term is more in-your-face with its brazenness than any other wide-release movie to date.
Turns out that the title (which is taken from the comic book series of the same name upon which the film is based) is good prep for the boldness to which the audience will be witness over the next two hours. It may not actually be that different from other similar films, but Kick-Ass feels like a wholly original piece of filmmaking, with writer/director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust) touching on multiple other genres to form Kick-Ass' whole.
The title actually refers to the main character, an alter ego for high school student Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who perfectly embodies the word "geek." His days mostly consist of reading comic books and having sexual fantasies about his teacher. The former obsession leads him to wonder why no one has ever attempted to become a real-life superhero. With a little prompting (i.e. being the victim of a mugging), he sets out trying to become Kick-Ass, courtesy of a mail-order scuba suit and some heretofore untapped courage (the key word there is "try").
Unbeknownst to him, Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) is in the process of training his 11-year-old daughter Mindy (Chloe Moretz) to become a superhero herself. Well, "superhero" may be the wrong term -- "vigilante" is more like it. Damon is seeking revenge for the murder of his wife at the hands of an Italian mob headed by Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), and thinks the best way to do that is to teach Mindy the fine art of taking a bullet and how to use a butterfly knife to dispatch an attacker (among many, many other things).
Kick-Ass' half-assed forays into hero territory and the Macreadys' quest eventually put them on each other's radar, not to mention that of D'Amico and his son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who just so happens to be one of Dave's classmates. The competing factions proceed to collide in sequences for which "mayhem" hardly even begins to accurately describe the goings-on.
There are several things that a viewer must try to wrap his or her head around with Kick-Ass. First is how much the film whips back-and-forth between tones. It starts out as your basic teen comedy, throws in bits of comic action, veers into sexual tension, careens into hard-core action, swerves into emotional family drama, and on and on. This inability to settle on what kind of movie it wants to be would normally spell death, but Vaughn has melded the disparate elements into something where each of them seems to fit just right.
But the biggest mind-bender is that the sweet and adorable Mindy is responsible for the vast majority of the ultra-violence that takes place in the film. The first time she takes out a roomful of bad guys with the skill, ease, and emotional detachment of the world's best hit man (her alter ego is, in fact, Hit-Girl) is a jaw-dropper, to say the least. Any person who's not a teenage/early twenties male will struggle to rectify the idea of a pre-teen girl unleashing such fury, even in a fictional setting. However, if you can remove yourself from that, the action scenes in Kick-Ass are a blast to watch.
Johnson, a British actor, is a virtual unknown on this side of the pond, but he pulls off the awkwardness and false bravado (not to mention American accent) of Dave/Kick-Ass well. Moretz, who stole her scenes in (500) Days of Summer last year, steals the whole movie this time around. Whether you believe what she's doing is appropriate or not, she blows you away as Mindy/Hit-Girl while she's blowing away her enemies. Cage, whose acting idiosyncrasies can ruin other types of films, fits perfectly amongst the craziness going on here. In fact, his various wacky inflections enhance his character, making us believe that Damon is both demented and a good father.
Kick-Ass is way more than just your average comic book film. While the morality (and physics) of a film that's supposedly set in the "real world" may give some pause, the bottom line is that it is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. It ain't for the faint of heart (or, ironically, anyone under 17), but Kick-Ass fully lives up to its name.