Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Kick-Ass (2010) Review

Shut up. Go see it.

There have been many recent comic book movies that have purported to tell stories about “realistic” superheroes without any powers to speak of. The Dark Knight and Batman Begins are two of the top examples of the genre that have played this angle, and both came out all the better for it. They took the modern world that we live in (Gotham City never looked more like Chicago), placed these typical cartoony characters into the mix (Scarecrow and the Joker), and somehow made the implausible seem plausible. When Watchmen came along, audiences were rather indifferent to its somber tone and complex plotting, claiming that the movie was dull and overly pretentious. I found the movie fascinating and very inventive, probing the nature of superheroes and how they fit in with the normal world (or how they don’t, to be exact). And now we have Kick-Ass to contend with in the “realistic” superhero subgenre. To all those who found Watchmen to be too serious, too long, and too slow, Kick-Ass is the antithesis of that. It’s a funny, irreverent, and fast-paced adrenaline rush that carefully treads the line between the real world and fantasy world so well that the final result becomes something both slightly familiar and yet entirely fresh at the same time.


Plot Synopsis: According to Dave Lizewski, the only superpower he has ever had is invisibility…to girls that is. But one day, he asks a question to his friends Marty and Todd purely out of curiousity; “how come no one has ever tried being a superhero?” Marty retorts that it is because it is “stupid, and they would be dead in like a day.” But Dave soon becomes serious about the subject because he is frustrated that no one ever tries helping people in need (such as when a nearby onlooker watches him and Todd get mugged without acting out). Eventually, he buys a wet suit online, grabs some batons, and goes out looking for crime and training himself. When he tries enacting revenge on the same two muggers however, he ends up less than triumphant with a knife wound in the gut that puts him in the hospital. Because he asked the doctor to hide the suit, rumors start flying around at school that he is gay because everyone thinks he was found beaten and naked. Ironically, this gets him closer to Katie, the girl he has had his eye on for a while and who says that she would like to have a friend “like him.” Now, with some metal plates in him and toughened nerve endings, Dave goes back out to fight crime and soon becomes the next Youtube celebrity, calling himself Kick-Ass. This newfound attention soon causes people on both sides of the law to take action however. Mob boss Frank D’Amico believes that Kick-Ass has been interfering with his business, and allows his nerd son Chris to dress up as a new hero, Red Mist, in order to lure Kick-Ass into a trap. Unbeknownst to Frank though, the real perpetrator behind his trouble is Damon Macready (Big Daddy), an ex-cop with a grudge against D’Amico who is also training his daughter Mindy (Hit-Girl) in the crimefighting business. 

Essentially, Kick-Ass plays like some twisted bastard child that came out of a pairing of Superbad and Kill Bill, with some Spider-Man thrown in for good measure. In every other scene, there’s bound to be some form of homage or distortion of typical comic book conventions. Dave’s first crime fighting experience ends in disaster, and the rest of his fights don’t go too well either as he clumsily swats at criminals with his batons. His relationship with Katie is much more brash and off-the-wall than the usual sanitized boy-girl love of Peter Parker and Mary Jane, or Clark Kent and Lois Lane . The idea of “real world” superheroes is even brought up by comparing them to Batman. There are plenty of other subtle jabs at Batman, Superman, and maybe a few others throughout that the hardcore comic fans should take delight in. Director Matthew Vaughn also has a good ear for music to splice into a scene. The theme from 28 Days Later is used to chilling effect during a warehouse shootout between Big Daddy and D’Amico’s goons. There are also some nodding cues to previous comic movie scores (Danny Elfman’s Batman and John Williams’ Superman, for example), but the two best uses are in a couple of action scenes with Hit-Girl, one being the theme from the Banana Splits (funny in its off-kilter mix with the gory evisceration onscreen) and the other being the Joan Jett hit “Bad Reputation” (an excellent way to ramp up the intensity).

Vaughn, who financed the production himself when no studio would agree on keeping the pitch-black tone of the comics, clearly used that freedom to full effect in order to accomplish his vision. This is a very black comedy, where the blood-splatter, bad language, and action are played for laughs, especially when dished out by Hit-Girl. However, Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman wisely shift tones during the appropriate times; for a movie that wants to be a full-on comedy, there are a surprising amount of dramatic moments. But these moments don’t feel forced because we’ve invested so much time in these characters that we really feel for them. There’s also an impressive balancing act in the action where we cheer whenever the bad guys get their due justice, but at the same time we understand that our heroes can be hurt severely when the punches are handed back to them. It’s that delicate balance between reality and fantasy pulled off by Vaughn that sometimes threatens to go too much in one direction, and then teeters back onto that sweet middle ground.

Too many times in action movies, we begin to grow tired and occasionally numb to the action scenes because they start to blur into each other and become repetitive (the Transformers movies and even 300 come to mind). In Kick-Ass, however, nearly every set-piece feels different from the last. Kick-Ass’ first successful fight is fun to watch because he’s still getting beaten up by the street punks but then rises to the occasion and chases them off. This contrasts with Hit-Girl’s soon-to-be-classic entrance where she cuts down bad guys with her double bladed sword with thrilling grace and agility. Big Daddy’s aforementioned warehouse shootout has some punchy editing that feels fresh and unique. There’s even a first-person perspective shootout that puts the cheap and seemingly random one in the Doom movie to shame. And then we have the assault on D’Amico’s penthouse, complete with a hallway rundown that rivals the one at the conclusion of Wanted (ironically, both the Wanted and Kick-Ass comics were written by Mark Millar). Of course, there are a few nits to pick, mostly with the penthouse conclusion. The final one-on-one fights feel somewhat rushed (mostly the one with Red Mist) and for those that feel the movie was already treading the line between over-the-top and too much, the finale may set them off at a couple of moments.


What keeps the movie grounded at the human level though are the great performances from all the cast members. Aaron Johnson, who could have come off too much like Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man, makes Dave/Kick-Ass his own. The moments where he talks to himself in the mirror and when he blurts out “tough” superhero exclamations are funny in their exaggeration, yet endearing in their conviction because we know that Dave’s trying to do his best, despite a lack of training or skills (apart from his messed up nerve endings and metal plates of course). Christopher Mintz-Plasse pulls off a similar trick as Chris D’Amico/Red Mist, who just wants to live up to his father’s name and make him proud. Mintz-Plasse may never shake off the “McLovin” factor from his career, but at least he shows that he can handle comedy without being one-note and can create different characters. The role of Frank D’Amico also gives Mark Strong room to breathe, pulling off his one-liners with zest and comic timing that rivals his co-stars, and he’s much better here than as the villain in Sherlock Holmes. But the films real heart is in the strong father-daughter relationship between Damon and Mindy Macready, a.k.a. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. Nicholas Cage is clearly having a ball with Damon’s eccentricities (he talks like the Adam West Batman when suited up) and Chloe Moretz gives a confident scene-stealing performance as the vulgar and pint-sized Mindy. Even fellow Hot Tub Time Machine co-stars Clark Duke and Lyndsy Fonseca stand out as Marty and Katie respectively.

For audiences that are growing tired of the increasing amount of serious superhero movies coming out in recent years and just want to kick back with a fun and colorful romp, then Kick-Ass should more than satisfying your craving. It has plenty of dark humor, creative and unique action, memorable characters, great use of music, and even a little controversy to keep things interesting.


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