I realize it’s unfair to hold a film’s hype against it – especially if that hype is ostensibly grass-roots (i.e. from people who’ve seen it, as opposed to studio marketing people) – but I found myself watching Kick-Ass, the new superhero action/comedy, waiting to have my mind blown. It never happened, and while the film was good – very good, actually – my world, sadly, remains unrocked. This movie’s been getting absolutely insane levels of hype in certain corners of the Internet (“best American action movie in a decade” and “greatest gunfights since Hard Boiled” are the two that stand out in my mind) since last summer’s ComiCon, and I’m not a guy who takes comparisons to vintage John Woo films lightly (check out my review of his 1989 classic The Killer here), to the point where I couldn’t help but let it inform my opinion of the movie. And as much as I went into it with a bit of an “Okay, let’s see what you got” attitude (which is almost never a good headspace to be in going into a review, in my opinion), I must say that while it didn’t rewrite the rules of action cinema for the 21st century, as some have claimed, Kick-Ass is a fun, foul-mouthed and gleefully violent and take on superheroes. I haven’t laughed this hard in an action movie since Punisher: War Zone, a movie I dearly love.
Kick-Ass is about a geeky high school kid named Dave who decides one day to try dressing up like a superhero. His first foray into crimefighting lands him in the intensive care unit, but when he recovers his nerve endings are so deadened that he can barely feel pain. Which helps, as he rises to fame courtesy of an Internet video of him getting beaten up by some thugs. The resulting clip, which becomes the biggest thing ever on the Internet, makes Kick-Ass a household name, and brings into the light the previously unknown father-daughter vigilante team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloë Moretz) and inspiring the Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). All of this is to the chagrin of the local crime boss (Mark Strong), who finds himself having to add “costumed crimefighters” to his list of career headaches.
The idea of a “real-world” take on superheroes isn’t new – Watchmen is the best, and best-known, exploration of that concept – but instead of going the grim, vaguely depressing route that Watchmen did (as well as the recent Canadian indie flick Defendor – check out my review here), Kick-Ass is an ultraviolent day-glo cartoon. See, the “realism” in Kick-Ass doesn’t go much further than the notion that if someone were to actually don tights and fight crime, they’d probably be horribly injured or killed. And they’d also probably have to be insane.
Dave (Aaron Johnson) isn’t crazy, just a geeky kid who takes a chance and does something he can’t believe nobody’s tried to do before. Naturally, it doesn’t go exactly as planned. Johnson is actually very solid in the role (I didn’t realize he was British until after I saw the movie, which is impressive), and he manages to make Dave a loser (and an idiot; it never feels like you’re supposed to think him dressing up like a superhero is a good idea) without making him unlikeable or too much of a pushover (a problem I had with Wanted, another comic-turned-movie from the same comic writer, Mark Millar; more on him later).
As much as he’s clearly the hero of the piece, Dave/Kick-Ass ends up acting almost as an entry point to a larger world that he (and the viewer) didn’t really know about, and that’s the world of Big Daddy and Hit Girl, a hyper-violent riff on Batman and Robin. (Cage is doing an utterly insane Adam West/William Shatner impression while in costume that you have to see to believe.) They’ve been fighting crime for some time, but from the shadows, as opposed to Kick-Ass, who promotes himself with a MySpace page. It’s Big Daddy and Hitgirl that get to do all the cool stuff during the film’s many excellent action sequences, and as much as some people seem to take issue with this (the complaint is that Kick-Ass is a supporting character in his own movie), it really only underlines the reality that the film has set up; Dave isn’t really a particularly good superhero, and usually ends up getting beaten up. But Big Daddy and Hitgirl have been training themselves to do this for years, and they, unlike the amateur Kick-Ass, are very, very good at killing bad guys. When they turn up, the movie’s energy level kicks up a notch, and that’s a credit to both Cage and Moretz (who has gotten a ton of attention as the vicious and foul-mouthed Hit Girl, and she is indeed the best thing in the movie), and the tragedy at the heart of their origin gives weight to characters that could have otherwise just been cartoonish and silly.
But the real star of Kick-Ass is director Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Layer Cake), who shows with this movie that he may be one of the best new action filmmakers working in Western movies. His film moves gracefully from action scenes to character moments, and as much as this is being sold as a superhero action film (and it is most definitely that), I took it more as a comedy about superheroes that happens to have stellar action scenes. Vaughn manages to poke fun at superheroes without being too mean-spirited (though believe me, as a lifelong geek and comic reader, many of the jokes in the film ring very true indeed), and as much as he obviously there’s obviously some mockery of genre conventions here, it never feels condescending or insulting to superheroes or their fans.
Kick-Ass is even more impressive in how it eclipses its source material. The film is based on a comic series from Scottish writer Mark Millar, who also wrote the comic Wanted (which was altered much more heavily for the movie version, which is great, because the comic is among of the worst I’ve read), and the film manages to clean up a lot of Millar’s juvenile tics and make them watchable. As much as I’m slagging on Millar’s writing style, which is too clever by half, he’s actually quite good with the basics of storytelling and pacing; there’s some twists and turns in Kick-Ass that I didn’t see coming and some genuine “how are they gonna get out of THIS?” moments in the third act. But Vaughn is a far superior filmmaker than Millar is a comic writer. As a guy who considers himself more of a comic fan than a movie buff (though it’s a close No. 2, believe me), I usually prefer the original comics to the film versions, but in the case of Kick-Ass, the movie is the better of the two versions, by a wide margin.
Kick-Ass is a riot. It’s crass, violent as hell and definitely not for everyone, but it’s also the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies all year.
Labels: comics, Movie review, superheroes