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Entries in Kick-Ass [2010] (1)

Monday
Apr192010

Kick-Ass (2010)

Mob Mentality

There’s been a lot of outrage leveled at Matthew Vaughn’s new film, Kick-Ass by people who, frankly, should know better (I’m looking at you, Roger Ebert). The movie has been called too violent; its marketing has been accused of being aimed at children, who have no business seeing the movie; it has been derided as lacking a moral compass. I read some of these opinion pieces before seeing Kick-Ass (which I rarely do, in order to keep my thoughts on a given film untainted), and the accounts of unrepentant child violence had me a bit worried. Now, having seen the movie, I’m sorry to say that every word of that brand of criticism is completely unfounded.

Kick-Ass is the best comic book movie ever made—which is weird, because the comic it’s based on has a number of issues that prevent it from being great. Yes, it is very violent. Yes, it features plenty of amoral and/or completely insane characters. And, yes, I think children should see the movie (more on that later). But it is much more optimistic and far less graphic than the source material, parts of which were really hard to stomach. I’m positive that if there were an alternate cut of the film released—one that was completely faithful to the comic book mini-series—the current version of Kick-Ass would be hailed as a paragon of virtue.

The story centers on high school nerd Dave Lizewski, (Aaron Johnson) a comics enthusiast whose limited social skills are appreciated only by his two geeky best friends. Dave’s daily life is marked by classes, rejections from girls, frequent masturbation, and the occasional mugging by knife-wielding street trash. One day, he asks his friends why there are no real-life superheroes. They laugh at him and say that if someone without otherworldly powers were to put on a spandex costume and try to fight crime, they’d get their ass kicked. Cut to Dave, ordering a green-and-yellow SCUBA-diving outfit off the Internet.

With only a couple of lightweight batons as weapons, Dave takes to the streets to combat evil. He soon spies his wallet-stealing nemeses trying to boost a car, and orders them to leave the vehicle alone. Not surprisingly, they challenge him, and Dave’s complete lack of training leaves him beaten, stabbed, and ultimately run over by a car.

Weeks later, he emerges from the hospital with so much nerve damage that he finds himself nearly impervious to pain; his bones—most of them broken in the attack—have been reinforced with steel rods, leading him to believe he’s been given the kind of indestructible metal skeleton that Wolverine enjoys. Without missing a beat, Dave restores his costume and sets out once again to rid the world of crime. His second attempt is more successful, if only because this fight is caught on bystander’s cell phone camera and posted on YouTube—and because Dave is able to fend off a gang of punks through persistence and some lucky moves.

Using the alias Kick-Ass, Dave launches a Web site to field requests from people in trouble. His exploits draw media attention, and also put him on the radar of two very different kinds of people. The first is local mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), whose business is threatened when a costumed vigilante disrupts a major drug deal. The second is Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a weapons enthusiast with a grudge against D’Amico. Big Daddy and his eleven-year-old daughter, Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), are also costumed vigilantes, whose actions are mistaken for those of their role model, Kick-Ass.

The rest of the picture is about the conflict between these three powerful forces of personality: The virtuous but naive and ill-equipped Kick-Ass versus the powerful and corrupt D’Amico versus Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, whose motivations lay in both justice and revenge. A fourth caped crusader, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) comes onto the scene mid-movie, and is the schizophrenic embodiment of all three ideals—his significance is something I’ll leave for you to discover.

The reason Kick-Ass is so successful as a movie is because it is almost completely grounded in reality. People have lauded Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight for their “gritty realism”, but that story’s protagonist is a billionaire who fights ninjas and nerve gas, whose greatest villains have been a supervillain district attorney and a brilliant, evil clown.

When I say Kick-Ass is based in reality, I mean that the only thing stopping a teenager from doing what Dave Lizewski does in this movie are willpower and empathy. Dave doesn’t become a crime fighter because he thinks it would be cool to wear a costume. He does it because he’s fed up with people being bullied or—worse yet—being too scared to help their fellow citizens when they’re in trouble. Bruce Wayne was motivated to become Batman foremost because of deep emotional scars stemming from the murder of his parents; Dave Lizewski is a regular kid who wants to make the world a better place—even at great personal cost to himself.

Which is why I think kids should see this movie. I have no idea what the appropriate age might be, but I find it hilarious that the fake outrage over Kick-Ass is aimed at children who might see this picture and think it’s cool to endanger themselves, when I can’t go to an R-rated slasher film without hearing mothers and fathers shushing their toddlers or watching them carry an infant out of the auditorium in the middle of the show (don’t worry: they always come back). Considering the fact that there is so much horrible, mediocre shit floating around the airwaves—from Dancing with the Stars to Chat Roulette to Fox and Friends—how awful is it to expose a child to a movie where the cool thing to do is to be selfless and help people?

Sure, the movie is violent. But Kick-Ass is by no means the most graphic piece of mass entertainment I’ve seen this year. Hell, if a kid stays up past 9pm on a weeknight, he or she is likely to see more objectionable material on network television—never mind the Internet (and don’t give me the “blocking” argument—kids will see what they want to see, and they already know your passwords). Plus, the violence in Kick-Ass—particularly when Hit-Girl takes on the mafia with her guns and Samurai sword—is so inventive and thrilling that it can only be considered art; it’s challenging art, only because of the age of the person doing the killing—but it’s still art.

And, really, Hit-Girl is the reason to see this movie. There’s no way in hell this would happen, but Chloe Moretz deserves to win an Oscar. This is her coming-out party as the most flawless, natural child actor since Haley Joel Osment saw dead people. She’s called upon to do nasty things to people, use terrible language, and, best of all, show real range as an actor. Those that call Kick-Ass “morally reprehensible” were probably in the bathroom when Hit-Girl learned the hard way that she’s not invincible. They must also have been refilling their sodas when her ultimate fate was revealed—I won’t spoil it, but it’s far from the nihilistic horror show many would have you believe; it is, in fact, a hopeful (and moral) ending for her character. No, these idiots simply saw a girl in a leather outfit say the word “cunt” and completely lost their minds.

If there’s a weak link, actor-wise, in this movie, it’s Nicolas Cage. He’s great fun to watch as Big Daddy’s alter ego, Damon Macready; he’s obsessed with guns and with training his little girl for combat, but he’s got the personality of a nerdy science teacher. He’s so warm and lovable that the minute he puts on his Batman costume and starts talking like Adam West, he lost me. I get what Cage is doing here, but it doesn’t work at all. At all. He also alternates accents for no reason, occasionally lapsing into a weird Southern drawl and breathlessly calling his kid, “Child”. Fortunately, there are enough scenes where Cage simply, silently, unloads on criminals that the rest of his performance can (almost) be forgiven.

Cage’s craziness (or laziness) stands out so much, I think, because as his nemesis, Mark Strong paints such a nuanced portrait of a crime lord. He plays Frank D’Amico not as a Tony Soprano-type grease ball, but as a devious, ruthless businessman, trying to balance running an empire and keeping that empire separate from his family life. I love how Strong works his menace selectively. In one scene, he orders two people to be beaten to death on a live Internet feed; in that same scene, he appears as a clueless dad who barely knows how to work the computer.

Because Kick-Ass is a comic book movie, the ending is left wide open for a sequel. I hope that doesn’t happen. In fact, I’d be okay with never seeing another comic book movie. They aren’t necessary anymore. The ones that came before Kick-Ass were either earnest superhero pictures or gritty deconstructions, all in search of the honesty that would define the genre. Kick-Ass is the definition of a great superhero movie because it shows superheroes as not being that great. Their power doesn’t exist in mutant abilities or outrageous spandex costumes. Truly super heroes are born when good people make hard choices and do the right thing, no matter the consequences; more often than not, they get their asses kicked for the effort.