There are some films studios love to make and one of those particular genres is the superhero/comic book movie. Another thing studios love to put into their films is plenty of action, with epic battles pitting valiant heroes against nefarious and deadly villains. A slick, polished look, as well as clever editing to heighten the experience, funny dialogue, memorable supporting characters, all of these, are equally staples of what Hollywood enjoys churning out, especially when producing films based on superheroes. Most, if not all of these elements are ready and present in Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. However, the search for financial support within the studio system proved a bit more challenging than usual, the reason being that Kick-Ass, for all its tantalizing strengths, is vastly different from the many comic book-inspired movies the movie-going public has been accustomed to over the past decade and a half.
Things start off quickly, with an immediate hint at the tone the film will adopt for the next 117minutes: a little of irony and self-referential humour mixed with some unabashed violence. The plot, ostensibly an amalgamation of the printed miniseries, revolves around teenager Dave Lizewski, a very average, geeky young man with not much to show for himself until the day he inexplicably decides to purchase a scuba diving suit online in order to dress up as a hero and protect the innocent at night. Inspired by the many comic books he and his friends have read over the years and somehow puzzled as to why not a soul has ever chosen to adorn an outfit to stalk the villains of his native Manhattan, he chooses to become that very precedent as his new alter ego Kick-Ass. His athleticism is at best limited, his planning for such a scheme is a tad leaky, but what he does possess is a lot of courage and heart. Unbeknownst to him however is the existence of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his young daughter Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) who are after revenge against the terrible crime lord Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Events will force Kick-Ass and the father-daughter duo to band together and take on D’Amico as well as the latter’s son Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
Unquestionably one of the principal elements that put fear into a studio at the thought of financing Kick-Ass was the level of unfiltered violence featured throughout. Witnessing bullets ripping through flesh is nothing new for anyone who has paid attention to recent action films, and experiencing the slicing and dicing of body limbs with a shiny sword should sound familiar to those who have seen the Kill Bill films, but it is the way the violence is handled at times in Kick-Ass that differentiates it from many other movies of the same ilk. Certainly in the early going of the film, there is a brutal realism to the violence depicted on screen which produced a very visceral reaction. Kick-Ass the character is nothing but a scrawny chump who is in far over his head. Ill-equipped for the task he has willfully burdened himself with, Dave’s early outings frequently end in great physical pain, even though his vigilante persona is earning popularity via YouTube. The injuries aren’t of the comical variety either. They are serious and life-threatening. It must be said that the first half of the movie certainly goes for something different. Aaron-Taylor Johnson, while not breaking any new grounds in the acting department, does a fine job portraying this eternally average Joe vying for something really quite extraordinary. Bubbling with enthusiasm yet constantly speaking with a nervous voice when confronting gangsters, Johnson embodies the exact sort of character Dave is supposed to: a courageous idiot.
Kick-Ass Lacks Thematic Consistency but Packs in a Lot of Guilty Fun
The pacing and tone of the film take a different turn near the halfway mark once Kick-Ass unites with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. Not a turn for the worse, thankfully, but the film’s overall feel diverges from where the story began. Once Hit-Girl makes her presence known to the audience, the portrayal of the characters and especially of the violence changes. Dave, in an attempt at assisting a fellow classmate he has the hots for, dresses as Kick-Ass, and arrives at a dingy apartment where some hoodlums live. These villains have been causing some trouble for Dave’s would-be girlfriend and when his half-assed attempt at intimidating the thugs fails him, the ever heroic and deadly Hit-Girl bails the protagonist out by stabbing and cutting the gang members into bite-sized barbecue cubes with her stunning arsenal of martial arts weaponry. At that moment Kick-Ass’ reaction mirrors the viewer’s: what the hell is going on?
It is at this stage when Kick-Ass transforms itself from an oddball wannabe superhero film into a true blue action-adventure, complete with bone-crunching, flesh slicing fight sequences. The turn is sharp, which may cause some to question the filmmakers’ intent. Is this a story about a regular teenager foolhardily trying something extraordinary or is this a film more along the lines of action films movie crowds adore? There is an argument to be made about the fact that, ultimately, Kick-Ass might not know what it wants to be exactly. Even so, as an adrenaline rush, what action scenes erupt in the second half are extremely well-devised and shot. Director Matthew Vaughn had not made a name for himself with audacious popcorn action films (audacious British gangster films, rather) but he adapts himself extremely well to the task at hand, as does his cast. The action is impressive, shocking, and stupendously fun all rolled into one little profanity-riddled package. The deaths look gruesome and discomforting yet Vaughn has a knack to cause laughter as unhinged violence explodes onscreen.
Nicholas Cage as Big Daddy gives one of his solid performances of his career and is awarded at least one scene in which his Batman-like character gets to eviscerate a hoard of lowly thugs. Channeling Adam West whenever wearing the cape and cowl and showing a twisted heartwarming personality when simply training or hanging out with his daughter, Cage, believe or not, is actually quite good here. That said, there is no beating around the bush regarding what most people remember when leaving the film, that being Chloë Grace Moretz as Mindy, aka Hit-Girl. A relative newcomer to the movie scene when Kick-Ass was released theatrically (some may have noticed her in a supporting role in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer), for all intents and purposes, Moretz steals the show and with good reason. Although she was about 12 years old when filming, physically she looks a lot younger. Having a character who is a petite girl spout the most appalling vulgarities before either hacking away the limbs of opponents or blowing their brains out with firearms is asking for controversy. One’s response to the character of Hit-Girl will rest on what they are willing to accept as acceptable cinema. There is a bevy of reasons why Hit-Girl is an abomination. However, if one is willing to go along with the movie’s preposterousness, Chloe Grace Moretz is far and away the best thing about the movie.
Vaughn and company keep pushing the limits of plausibility right up until the climax, which sees the involvement of a missile-equipped jet pack attacking the antagonist’s Manhattan condo. Even the score, surprisingly the result of the efforts of four (!) different composers, grows more traditionally bombastic near the end. For some, the shift in tone will disappoint while others will certainly laud the movie for finally giving them what they were expecting to see in the first place. The movie walks a very fine line and while thematically it fails to pay dividends on its original premise, it still ends up being a fantastic romp.
- Edgar Chaput