Friday, November 19, 2010

Fun But Unsettling, Kick-Ass Is Still A Winner.

The Good: Good pacing, Generally decent sense of realism, Dark tone
The Bad: Seems too familiar/predictable in places.
The Basics: A violent, action-packed super hero film that has a disturbing level of realistic violence and terrible language, Kick-Ass holds its own as an atypical hero film.

It might seem weird that as a fan of the super hero genre, I find myself recommending remarkably few super hero films enthusiastically. Sure, the last two years, my favorite movies of the year have been in the genre, with my sense that there is a real sense of injustice in the awards process where Watchmen (click here for that review!) was not even nominated for any. So, with the new film Kick-Ass, it might seem surprising that I opened myself up to the potentials of the super hero film again. But I did and it was (mostly) worth it.

Kick-Ass is best analogized as Hancock without the super powers or the pretense. Whereas Hancock tried to explore the consequences of a super hero with real failings living in the otherwise very real world, Kick-Ass explores the consequences of people – mostly young people – getting involved in vigilante actions when they have no superlative abilities. It is not just a super hero origin story, but it is - in many ways – the entire arc of the super hero and it is one that is entertaining, but not for the faint of heart.

Dave is a pretty normal teenager who enjoys doing the usual teenage guy things like reading comic books and trying to pursue girls who are not actually interested in him. One night, he decides it’s stupid that there are no super heroes in the world and he sets out to become one. The result is that he gets his butt kicked, bones broken (graphically) and he spends quite a bit of time in the hospital recovering. Even so, when Dave recovers, he suits up again and goes out armed with only improvised nun-chucks which allow him to rescue a needy person from a group of three assailants. Filmed in the process, he declares himself to be the new crimefighter Kick-Ass and he sets up a MySpace page to try to save those in need.

What he attracts, however, is the attention of the father-daughter vigilante group, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. Big Daddy has set his sights on ridding the city of the notorious criminal Frank D’Amico, who believes that Kick-Ass has been thwarting some of his attempts to smuggle. D’Amico’s son, Chris takes on a super hero persona of Red Mist to lure out Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl and Big Daddy to try to rid the city of the vigilantes.

Despite the appropriately cheesy super hero names, Kick-Ass is surprisingly real and the film’s graphic violence reflects that. This is a ridiculously bloody movie in parts and the viewer has an uncomfortable sense of watching violence done to people often too powerless to save themselves. This makes it far darker than the initial previews made the movie seem and those looking for a light popcorn movie are not going to find it here.

Part of the reason for that is that it is unsettling to see Hit-Girl in virtually every scene she is in. The eleven year-old crime fighter has been toughened by doing and defending herself from violence. As a result, she swears like there is no tomorrow and the effect is undeniably disturbing. However, even though hearing a girl so young use words I never would as an adult made me cringe, it is hard to argue with what writers Mark Vaughn and Jane Goldman are doing. Illustrating how violence begets violence – D’Amico’s men getting killed spirals into a climactic attack from Red Mist and D’Amico himself – the writers (Vaughn also is the movie’s director) illustrate that stopping criminals by using their methods often leaves them in a similar, undesirable, mindset. Despite the fact that young people populate the film, this is in no way a children’s movie.

Kick-Ass also works because the starkness of the world it creates. Dave’s first attempt to rise up as a costumed hero has painful results and as his body is broken and bloodied, it is hard not to feel like one is watching a real mugging take place. This both stirs the fear and the empathy in the viewer. Dave’s desire to rid the world of even petty crime becomes perfectly understandable and the viewer wants to like him. As well, the movie does not resort to too many of the obvious conceits. Sure, Dave has an interest in a girl at school, Katie, but the movie abandons developing a ridiculous romantic subplot too far and instead focuses on Dave’s life as Kick-Ass and the real risks that entails.

Surprisingly good in Kick-Ass are Nicholas Cage (it’s been so long since I could write that!) and the young actors, Chloe Grace Moretz and Aaron Johnson. Johnson might initially seem to be just the product of good casting as a gangly teenager, but he pulls off the role by speaking of his character’s purpose with a determination that still has the optimism of one untouched by violence and a force of an adult. Johnson has great realism in his movements, which make many of his fight sequences seem anything but choreographed and there are moments when he takes a hit where he sells the moment perfect.

Similarly, Cage and Moretz play off one another with a realistic chemistry that make them truly seem like father and daughter. Cage has a worldly quality to him that fits Big Daddy perfectly and Moretz has an anger she portrays that never seems over-the-top, but is almost entirely troubling. In fact, the only scene Moretz truly fails to sell is in her final moments on screen and I’ll not ruin the reason for the problem with that.

Those looking for a good super hero film, even in the wake of Iron Man 2, will find a lot to enjoy in Kick-Ass, so long as they are not expecting bright, pastel fun. This is a dark world and Kick-Ass seeks to show what happens when common people stand up in it.

For other super hero films, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight
Wonder Woman
Blade: Trinity


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here for a concise list of all I have reviewed (updated daily!).

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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