Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Kick-Ass? Eh, Maybe Next Time

Maybe I am over-thinking this. I mean, the movie's title is Kick-Ass, and I am sitting here trying to figure out what the point of it all was.

Sure, there are moments when Kick-Ass is fairly kick-ass, but I cannot bring myself to stop thinking there. This film's premise is so post-modern that I feel obligated to look for some sort of examination of heroism or violence in our society or, hell, even high school. Yet, looking back on the film, I find little to nothing. In its first act, Kick-Ass does a lot to turn our idea of what a superhero is on its head. Then, after all that, it just wraps up the plot and goes home.

Dave (Aaron Johnson) is an average teenager with an above-average sense of moral duty. His life is trite and mundane but, one day, he decides to buy a wetsuit online. That, and a MySpace page, is the extent of his plan for becoming Kick-Ass, the everyman superhero. The results are not pretty. While attempting to stop a couple of would-be carjackers, he promptly gets stabbed and hit by a car. He wakes up with countless metal pins in his skeleton and almost total numbness. Instead of giving up, he turns this into his greatest asset – he can now take one hell of a beating. In short order, he becomes a full-blown YouTube phenomenon.

Damon (Nicolas Cage) and Mindy (Chloe Moretz) are a bit more professional. They are a father-daughter team that has been training to fight crime since Mindy was about five. Now that she is a few years older, she goes by the name Hit Girl, crusading with the support of her father's alter ego, Big Daddy. Unlike Kick-Ass, the two work in secret and are hot on the trail of Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), a crime boss. They do, however, cross paths with Kick-Ass and ultimately join forces to take D'Amico down.

There is not much else to discuss about the plot because Kick-Ass contains few surprises that are not in the commercials. The bad guys are occasionally funny, but shallow as hell. D'Amico has a son named Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who adds a bit of moral complexity to the plot, but he is little more than a secondary character. The script, by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn (based on a comic by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.) also fails to make the protagonist particularly interesting. Dave's high school tribulations are supposed to be typical, but there are precious few moments where any of it is presented in an atypical way. He cannot get a girl. How do we find this out? He thinks the hot girl at school is greeting him, so he greets her back, only to realize that she was greeting the girl behind him. How zany.

Dave does provide a few laughs. People stare in confusion as Kick-Ass walks across town to his next crime fighting adventure. A flashback of his mother's death is hilariously brief. Nevertheless, much of the teen comedy is stale.

Damon and Mindy, though, have a wonderfully twisted relationship. (Cage's bizarre performance really sells it.) They regularly discuss violence and the necessary accoutrements (she wants butterfly knives for her birthday), but their interactions are as saccharine as those between Beaver Cleaver and his parents. As such, they go much further on their inherent entertainment value than Dave does.

In fact, the concept of Hit Girl is probably the most fascinating aspect of the movie. The character hardly develops much as the film goes on, but she's a gleefully horrifying contradiction. One can feel a ton of latent commentary about the way American children are being raised today lurking within this character. This film never digs into it, but another could. Sure, being Big Daddy's little killer is ironic, but the idea of watching her having to grow up (and perhaps trudge through some of Dave's social territory), with all of the baggage she's undoubtedly gained, seems far more interesting than what we get here. I could not care less about Kick-Ass 2. Give me Hit Girl Goes to High School.

Anyway, since all I have to review at the moment is Kick-Ass, some of the controversy surrounding Hit Girl is founded. Her fight scenes are extremely violent. I did not initially find this problematic, as they are quite over-the-top, they are never sadistic and the girl slaughters so deftly that she never seems to be in danger. Only at the end, when a few notable shifts occurred, did it begin to bother me. First, her final fight begins with her emulating Gogo from Kill Bill. In Tarantino's film, this is a cheeky twist on the Japanese schoolgirl fetish, as performed by an eighteen year-old. Doing the same – even subtly – with a tween is taking it too far. Second, this is the first time in the movie that she takes a hit. Watching a full-grown man kick a little girl in the face is far less fun than watching the inverse. Third, she abruptly turns into a damsel in distress. She is decidedly the best fighter in the whole movie until the end, when the titular hero must save her. Twice. Gotta love Girl Power*.
*Girl Power only applies in Acts One through Two. All rights to let person with penis save girl in Act Three reserved.

That being said, it is usually good fun watching the ass kicking in Kick-Ass. Vaughn's directing may be a tad too slick to really make us care about the characters, but it creates some great mayhem. It is difficult to describe much of the acrobatics Hit Girl performs, probably because of all of the flipping and the grappling hooks and the like, but it all makes perfect visual sense. It is even more impressive when one considers the relatively tight budget he had. Vaughn also (at least occasionally) knows how to dial down the style. Kick-Ass's first few tussles are a disaster, and the directing lets that come through by keeping things realistic.

Otherwise, the directing is unexceptional. Kick-Ass's New York is mostly green screen and nondescript back alleys. It is difficult to tell if it is going for an exaggerated look (like the Watchmen film) or if it is trying to be down-to-earth. Comic book-style titles ("Meanwhile...") occasionally appear, but they also send an unclear message; are we supposed to be inside a comic book, here? This is not suggested anywhere else. Also, Vaughn got a bit carried away with the iTunes playlist; there are a number of moments where the soundtrack distracts from the action on screen.

It is a disappointing result for a movie that initially works so hard to set itself apart. Kick-Ass is neither as offensive as many people feared it would be or as audacious as many others hoped for it to be. The ending suggests that the filmmakers hope to make a sequel. There are definitely concepts in this film that deserve exploration, so I cannot say that I dread the idea of a sequel. I simply hope that the filmmakers' next effort will be a bit more inspired, and that all of the flair shown here can run deeper.

Or they could just make Hit Girl Goes to High School.

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