Kick-Ass shoots itself in the foot
If you have had regular access to the internet these past six months, you have no doubt been exposed to the extensive marketing campaign that preceded the release of KICK-ASS. Not a week went by without new trailers, vignettes, movie stills or one of the approximately 150 posters, making this easily the most-hyped release of the first half of 2010. Kick-Ass is based on the comic-book by Mark Millar (Wanted) and John Romita Jr. and adapted for the screen by director/writer Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Layer Cake) and Jane Goldman. Now that it’s finally arrived, critics can be roughly divided into two types:
–Those that applaud Kick-Ass for being a clever satire/smart deconstruction/subversion of the superhero genre, and
–Those that condemn it for being morally bankrupt for its sadistic violence and foul language.
For reasons explained before, I don’t believe the hype, either positive or negative. And after witnessing Kick-Ass with my own two eyes, I am forced to admit that both groups of critics are wrong.
Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a typically average teenage boy, whose only superpower is to be invisible to girls. As he himself admits, he’s not even the funniest among his friends. This is true, since he has only two friends cast for comic relief. It is safe to say that Dave is the least funny of his friends.
One day while drinking coffee at the comic book-store, Dave wonders why normal people don’t dress up as superheroes to fight crime. One of his friends sensibly replies: “Because they’d get their ass kicked”. Unfortunately, this fundamental truth fails to penetrate Dave’s head and one casual mugging on the way home later, Dave decides to reinvent himself as a superhero. With the help of a scuba-suit and a ski-mask ordered off the internet, Kick-Ass is born. And is promptly stabbed and run over by a car for his troubles.
Now if the movie had ended there, it would have been a perfect lesson about the follies of wish-fulfillment. Short, succinct and to the point. Unfortunately we’re only 20 minutes in and there is a lot more to come.
The trip to the hospital has left Dave with metal plates grafted to his bones—just like Wolverine. And yes, that line of dialogue is actually used in case we couldn’t figure that out for ourselves. Thank you, Dave—and deadened nerve ends that make him impervious to pain. He leaves the hospital with a reputation as a gay-prostitute, which finally brings him to the attention of the girl of his dreams Katie Deauxma (Lyndsey Fonseca) but not in the way he hoped. He still wants to bone her, she looks at him as a potential gay best friend. Yes, this is an actual part of the plot. I swear I am not making this up.
You’d think that after nearly getting killed, Dave would think twice about going out as Kick-Ass again, but before you can shout “You dumb fuck!” he’s at it again.
This time, he comes across three gangbangers beating up on a helpless guy, and Dave wouldn’t be Dave if he didn’t jump to the defense of the victim. This part, I actually liked.
This fight, and the one before, are shot as frantic affairs of street-brawling. None of the parties seem to have anything but the most basic grasp of fighting, which is to inflict as much pain as possible to the other guy. It’s vicious, frenetic, brutal and the camera-style fits it perfectly. It’s also a scathing commentary on the apathy of the general public. When Kick-Ass calls out to a bystander to call 911, he instead gathers a crowd that become silent spectators, while filming the fight on his cell-phone. It’s reminiscent of the news-stories you hear about a person drowning while a crowd of spectators watched and did nothing. This scene also marks the only time I felt sympathy for Kick-Ass . As he stands over the prone victim, obviously spent and still refusing to give up, I must admit his weary defiance warmed my heart—briefly.
Unfortunately, this warm feeling doesn’t last long. The video of Kick-Ass gets uploaded to youtube and seemingly overnight, he becomes a viral success. I’m sure this was meant as a comment on internet popularity. Dave comments that he, as Dave, has only 36 friends on Facebook, yet Kick-Ass has 16,000 and counting. Dave does strike me as the type of person who puts a great deal of stock in the number of virtual friends he accumulates. There’s also some more pussy-footing at this point involving the developing relationship between Katie and her new-found gay best friend that I sort of tuned out.
By the way, I should interject at this point that it’s not the acting that’s at fault. Both Johnson (who is English, and colour me surprised when I found out) and Fonseca do the best with what they’re given. It’s just that both characters are so bland, that I couldn’t care less about their relationship. In fact, every time the movie went in that direction, I wished for something to take the focus away from it.
And boy, was I in luck.
For meanwhile, across town, disgraced ex-cop Damon MacReady and his 11-year old daughter Mindy (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz) are playing the vigilante game as well, albeit with much higher stakes. Not content with battling petty crime like Kick-Ass, they have set their sights on local crime-boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), the man they hold responsible for the death of Mrs. MacReady. And as masked crime-fighters Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, they’re really doing a number on Frank’s organization. Unfortunately for our hapless hero Kick-Ass, this coincides with his newly minted popularity, forcing Frank to conclude that Kick-Ass is the vigilante behind the systematic destruction of his underlings. As a result, he puts a price on Kick-Ass’ head.
You just know that sooner or later, Dave and the Macreadys’ paths are going to converge. They do, and oh in what glorious fashion!
Dave, still playing the gay chump to Katie, decides to do her a favour by having Kick-Ass deliver a stern warning to her drugs-dealing ex-boyfriend Rasul. Needless to say he’s in way over his head. Lucky for him, Rasul’s crew just so happens to be part of Frank’s crew. And Big Daddy and Hit-girl just so happen to be targeting Rasul on the same night as Kick-ass.
And this is the point where the whole film turns to shit.
I’m not going to reveal too much about the third act (although, if you have watched the trailers and the vignettes, you already have a great big, honking clue about upcoming events), but the scene in Rasul’s apartment marks a turning point for the movie.
Up until that point, it had been a deconstruction of the superhero genre. While the pace might have lagged, it did bring several smart ideas to the table about a normal, everyday guy trying to be a superhero. Like Batman, only without the gadgets or the budget or, let’s be frank, the common sense. All Kick-Ass has is his optimism, his genre-savviness and his ability to take a beating and still get up.
And then they reveal Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. In all their Ass-Kicking glory.
I am not one to complain about violence or profanity. As a teacher I have intimate knowledge about how profane kids only slightly older than Hit-Girl can be, so that aspect is not a stumbling block. Nor am I bothered with the grotesque, graphic violence that ensues any time Big Daddy or Hit-Girl makes an entrance. Theirs is a violence that can only exist in a fantasy comic-book setting. It’s so over the top that you can’t really be bothered by it, unless you’re a self-proclaimed moral guardian. It’s rated R, a conscious decision on the director’s part. What did you expect? For Hit-Girl to play with My Little Ponies and wear flowers in her hair? Wake the fuck up!
And again, it’s not the performances. In fact, Nicolas Cage and especially Chloe Moretz are the real stars of Kick-Ass. Cage finally seems to have found a project to suit his peculiar sensibilities and managed to drag himself out of a possibly career-ending string of bad choices. Moretz, meanwhile, sparkles in every scene she’s in and steals the entire movie. Their scenes together feel more genuine than the ones shared between Johnson and Fonseca.
It’s not in Matthew Vaughn’s action direction either. Whatever his faults (and I’ll get to them) staging exciting action set-pieces isn’t one of them. There is one scene in a blacked-out warehouse that is so brilliantly executed, that I doubt that any movie released in 2010 can match it.
It’s just that Big Daddy and Hit Girl belong in an entirely different movie.
As much as Kick-Ass likes to deconstruct/satirize/debunk the superhero myth, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl couldn’t exist in any other environment. Theirs is the type of violence that requires a certain type of disbelief incongruous to the first half of Kick-Ass. The violence of those two exists in the same universe as that of The Bride as something so far removed from reality that we are willing to suspend disbelief and accept it at face value.
And therein lays the problem. The characters are aware of the medium of comic-books with dialogue covering Batman, Wolverine and Steve Ditko’s run on Spiderman. Yet the movie is also fully aware of its comic-book origins. There are the text-boxes that announce events going on across town (“Meanwhile”) as well as a cop character, introduced out of the blue, whose sole purpose is to pick up a comic drawn by Damon MacReady that fills us in on the background of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. This scene, while beautifully drawn and animated, once again reminds us that we are watching a comic-book movie (and incidentally brought to mind the anime chapter from Kill Bill).
It’s as if Vaughn wants to eat his cake and have it too. Unfortunately, this completely undermines everything he tried to set up in the first half of the movie and turns Kick-Ass into just another Superhero comedy.
Sure, it’s entertaining as hell, but I doubt it will stand up to repeat viewing. While you may remember all the funny bits and the action sequences and think to yourself: “That was cool!” upon exiting the theatre, it only takes little time and reflection before it sinks in that Kick-ass isn’t half as clever as it hoped to be. And that ultimately makes Kick-Ass a rather hollow experience.
Edited by Tracy McCusker.