Don’t you hate film reviews that focus too heavily on the story as opposed to the critic’s overall feelings on the execution of the motion picture? I do. So, in short: Kick-Ass tells the story of teenage Dave Lizewski who sets out to become a real-life superhero. Based on a comic by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., the movie opens a bit like the 1999 comedy Mystery Men, with its nerdy protagonist (Aaron Johnson) dreaming of becoming a superhero and celebrity. Despite the fact that he has zero powers, he looks to reincarnate himself as a crime-fighting watchdog by pulling together a costume from a crappy green wetsuit and work boots. He starts on an unexpected wild adventure as a homemade superhero named Kick-Ass, a decision that will inspire a subculture of copy cats, put his life in danger, and gets him caught up in a bigger fight. Along the way, he meets Big Daddy, a former cop trying to bring down the evil drug lord Frank D’Amico, with his eleven-year-old daughter, the ruthless assassin/vigilante named Hit-Girl.
This isn’t your typical comic book movie. Pushing several envelopes of extreme violence, extreme profanity, and juggling teen angst comedy with superhero fantasy, Kick-Ass redefined superhero movies in the same way Pulp Fiction redefined crime movies. Poised to be a popular culture phenomenon thanks to its perfect capturing of the fantasies of the young male fanboy population, director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake and Stardust) delivered a supercharged, ultraviolent, highly entertaining teen-rebel comic-book fantasy.
The violence in Kick-Ass is brutal, the language would make your parents cringe, the action bounces between the style of Kill Bill to the stupidity of Looney Tunes (some of them verge on torture porn), and the dark comedy at times is hilarious. Always original, self-aware and so cartoonishly extravagant with bloodshed, Kick-Ass lives up to the promise of its title. Bringing together several popular strains of contemporary movie-making (without ever talking down to its audience), the film melds the various styles all into one giant boiling pot of “KICK ASS”, making it an irresistible likable piece of pure entertainment.
With that said there is a serious intelligence behind this picture, and in a genre usually exploited to attract people either too young to know better or too dumb to care, Kick-Ass was a breath of fresh air when it was released in 2010. Director Matthew Vaughn who was in love with the comic book, approached Millar and bought the rights, leaving him free from the meddling of studios. Raising all of the money himself (with the help of Brad Pitt), he made the film on a micro-budget and turned in an R-rated, blood-soaked masterpiece of violence and comedy. More importantly, by playing with lucrative formulas in pursuit of an actual vision he took some big chances, and thankfully he succeeded in every way possible.
The production values are top-notch, from the artificially-sweetened color palette by DP Ben Davis to the sharply styled pitch-perfect editing, the brief animated sequences, colorful costumes, the highly decorated set design and wonderful but never distracting visual effects. Hyperviolence is the dominant mode of Kick-Ass, and if you are any kind of action film fan it’s difficult to deny the live-wire pulp energy that plays out on screen. Directed with a racy, action-packed style, the film features several memorable shootouts, including one highlight reel filmed in flashes of darkness and strobe-lit mayhem.
Vaughn also speeds up the action during the violence and cranks up the soundtrack, with upbeat music including the gospel reverence of Elvis Presley, tracks from Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores and even Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. His flair for picking a soundtrack is up there with Quentin Tarantino, turning each episode into a fanboy’s wet dream. What, also, do we think of a soundtrack that veers from to the manic theme song from The Banana Splits, with Hit-Girl decimating her enemies with a butterfly knife?
Vaughn gets a lot of mileage out of the classic superhero tropes by converting them to Internet-age satire. Kick-Ass focuses heavily on society’s obsession with, and dependence on, the online world over the real world. Dave isn’t taken seriously as a vigilante until a cell-phone video of him fighting crime is launched to YouTube. Vaughn also keeps the personal relationships grounded in a recognizable reality. For example, the ridiculous friendship that develops between Dave and the girl of his dreams, because she thinks he’s gay. Its depiction of high school life feels cliched (Internet porn masturbation jokes, high-school bullies) but those cliches have everything to do with why Dave puts on a mask in the first place.
The film also celebrates dark impulses, urging us to cheer the notion that two wrongs can make one right. That helps to make Kick-Ass a guilty pleasure of the highest order, but if you look beyond the jokes and violence, you’ll find a strong belief in a code of honor, as well as the power of the family dynamic, via its twisted look at the length to which parents will go to impose their own values and desires upon their children. The film focuses heavily upon the relationship between “Big Daddy” and his 9-year-old daughter, who he is training to be a super-assassin. Her relationship with her father isn’t cynical but instead genuinely touching. Cage and Moretz’ Batman-and-Robin-style duo are one of the most exciting and unique father-daughter combinations ever to hit the screen and this is really their movie.
Following his performance in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Cage creates another delightful madman, the ex-cop with an axe to grind, and it is his best performance in years. Here he rediscovers the qualities of the idiosyncratic humor that made audiences like him back in the days of Raising Arizona. Cage is a poignant figure, yet he’s also quite funny in his Big Daddy incarnation, doing a blatant imitation of TV’s Batman, Adam West. By underplaying the role, he reminds you of what a great campy comic actor he can be.
Mindy doesn’t have the title role in Kick-Ass, but her presence is everything. Chloe Moretz, a then-13-year-old who had already amassed more than 30 credits, plays the pint-sized, purple-haired potty-mouthed pip-squeak. This prepubescent version of Uma Thurman’s “Bride” in the Kill Bill films has the martial arts chops of a John Woo assassin. Make no mistake – the action sequences in Kick-Ass are among the best in recent years and Hit Girl’s virtuosic scissor-knife work and ridiculous weaponry make for a showstopping performance.
But the family dynamic aspect doesn’t end there. Complicating all their lives is the presence of the suave D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his crew of inept thugs. And complicating Frank’s life is his wonderfully nerdy son played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Mintz portrays Chris D’Amico, the whiny mob scion out to prove himself to his lethal dad. In a plan to flush out Kick-Ass, the mobster enlists him to pose as a costumed hero named Red Mist. Mintz is great as usual playing the part with the cultivated aura of goofiness and awkward self-satisfaction he made popular in Superbad. Strong understands the material and never overplays it, and the combination of colorful thugs makes for a great cast.
Kick-Ass understands the basics of comic-book mythology, the importance of a back story, the importance of family issues, the desire for heroes and villains, and the drive to become one. More importantly, it knows exactly which buttons it’s pushing. The pic’s nearly two-hour running time never feels stretched and its closing scenes, naturally, pave the way for a sequel – but for once, the promise of a sequel feels right.
– Ricky D