A film review by Craig J. Koban April 27, 2010

KICK-ASS jjj
½ 

2010, R, 117 mins.

 

Dave/Kick-Ass: Aaron Johnson / Damon/Big Daddy: Nicolas Cage / Mindy/Hit Girl: Chloe Grace  Moretz / Chris/Red Mist: Christopher Mintz-Plasse / Frank D'Amico: Mark Strong / Big Joe: Michael Rispoli

Directed by Matthew Vaughn / Written by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr.

Oliver Stone once stated that great works of satire need to be brazenly subversive in order to be any good.  I was thinking of those comments all throughout KICK-ASS, a new super hero comic book adventure - unlike any other - based on the 2008 mini-series written by Mark Millar (who wrote the graphic novel WANTED, also made into a film) and illustrated by John Romita Jr..  

It tells a basic storyline of an ordinary teen nobody that decides that he wants to be a super-empowered costumed vigilante.  This basic premise of "what if there were real spandex-clad heroes" is hardly new (HANCOCK did it to a certain degree, as did both the graphic novel and film version of WATCHMEN), but KICK-ASS is a more over-the-top, robustly hyper-charged, absurdly ultra-violent, and rebelliously hilarious deconstruction of comic book mythology.  It both shamelessly embraces and skewers the iconography of the men in tights genre, and it does so with a pulse-pounding dynamism and a never-look-back nerve.  

And...boy...this film does have nerve in abundance, which is the source of why it’s such an audaciously tongue-in-cheek, unapologetically scatological, and sickeningly entertaining ride.  The film works on so many divergent layers: it’s part teenage wish fulfillment comic fantasy, part blood curdling action film, part commentary on the nature of how the Internet and You Tube can make celebrities out of anyone, and part loving homage and scathing indictment of the best and worst of super hero lore.  The film is also a very equal opportunity offender (it certainly has raised many moral red flags; more on that in a bit), but it sticks to its ballsy creative guns and makes no apologies.  Great satires go for jugular without any fear of reprimand, and for that, KICK-ASS deserves high merit.

Independently financed, co-produced by the likes of Brad Pitt, and directed outside of virtually any studio inference by Matthew Vaughn (he made the very good LAYER CAKE and the decidedly so-so STARDUST), KICK-ASS goes for absolute broke.  The film and the source material have a very sly and quick witted understanding of the formulas and conventions of super hero strips and, for the most part, radically turns them upside down with mocking – but reverential – glee.  The film is not completely a parody, not completely an acerbic satire, and not completely a quasi-realist presentation of the comic world…but rather a bit of all of those extremes.  The film has action that borders on pornographic, but it also balance those moments with scenes of droll, observational black comedy.  Then there are other instances where the film seems to be spoofing the lamer aspects of caped crusader lifestyles (form fitting spandex, strutting poses, sidekicks, etc.), but then it changes gears and shows what actually would happen if a crazed kid in tights tried to pick a fight with some armed criminals.  KICK-ASS is a Swiss Army Knife of themes and tones, but it modulates between all hemispheres with a real proficiency.

Dave Lizewski (a rock solid Aaron Johnson, a British actor that never once tips off his heritage with his Americanized inflections) is a Peter Parker-esque dweeb that is everything but popular.  He’s sort of gangly, meek looking, and very unassuming…everything that most super heroes are not made of.  He has a small group of equally nerdy BFFs (played well by Evan Peters and HOT TUB TIME MACHINE’s Clarke Duke) that spend most of their free time reading comic books.  When he’s not hanging with his buddies and gorging on comics Dave is either (a) pleasuring himself to internet porn or the thought of his buxom high school teacher and (b) fantasizing about the high school girl of his dreams, Katie (played by Lyndsy Fonseca), who barely notices him at all. 

One day Dave has an epiphany: why not become a costumed hero and fight crime?  After all, Bruce Wayne is mortal and has no powers…how hard could it be?  His friends – in a droll scene – rightfully remind Dave that Wayne is a billionaire, has vast resources, and has trained his mind and body for decades, whereas Dave has merely idealistic dreams and determination: they conclude that he would seriously get his ass kicked.  Nonetheless, Dave orders a spandex costume online and after a fairly pathetic training regiment, he goes out on the prowl.  His first day on the job is hilariously ghastly and anything but heroic: he is stabbed in the stomach, hit by a speeding car, and is sent to the hospital.

Part of the frequently hysterical intrigue of the film is that Dave is so unrelentingly horrible at being a hero.  He also is hopelessly naïve: Even though his lengthy hospital stay leaves him with nerve damage and metal plates in various parts of his body, he is nonetheless driven by one thing - he will let his intense drive – not skill or abilities – fuel his desire to stop bad guys (his most hilarious oversight is that, yup, skills and abilities usually make super heroes what they are).  One night changes everything for Dave: during a rather bloody street fight between him and some muggers (during which he manages to give as good as he gets, even in an unpolished manner), the footage is captured by a bystander, put on the web, and Kick-Ass becomes an overnight celebrity. 

Dave's overnight stardom captures the attention of two other wannabe vigilantes: A former, disgraced police officer named Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage, a zany, unhinged delight) and his cute, pig-tailed, 11-year-old daughter Mindy (500 DAYS OF SUMMERS’ Chloe Grace Moretz) decide that they will also become costume heroes in the Batman and Robin vein, but with a much more horrific predilection towards heavy weapons and all out murder.  Damon becomes the very Dark Knight-looking “Big Daddy” and she becomes his sidekick, "Hit-Girl",  but unlike DC Comics’ most famous Dynamic Duo, this pair likes to shoot, stab, and kill first and ask questions a very distant second.  Big Daddy, Hit Girl, and even Kick-Ass’ exploits begin to be noticed by one of the city’s most notorious underworld criminals (the always magnetic Mark Strong, who can make every villain he plays so intrinsically varied and intense), but as he hatches out plans to eliminate all of these heroes he also has to deal with his teen son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who desperately wants to win his dad’s approval.  He too decides to become a hero, named "Red Mist", but his ulterior motives are far less than gallant.

Again, part of the seriously demented fun of KICK-ASS is with just how mediocre Dave is as the title character: he essentially becomes famous because of the internet – not the most trusted of sources – and falsely feels like a hero less by what he actually does and more by how many hits he gets on his web site.  The film, as a result, manages to cheekily sends up the Internet gobbles up nobodies and hastily turns them into sensations. Kick-Ass can’t fly, can’t scale buildings, and can swing from a grabbling hook…hell…he does not even have a car or a Kick-Ass mobile: he often uses his bike to travel.  Yet, what give the character and the film an underdog edge is that Dave has balls the size of Krypton: he sucks ass as a hero, but his burning desire to seriously kick ass as a hero motivates him. 

This, of course, leads to some wickedly funny material, such as a subplot involving Dave trying to bed the seemingly unattainable Katie.  She, like many a female love interest persona in comics, has no idea that the dorky Dave is Kick-Ass (whom she really pines for), and when Dave does begin a relationship with her, it’s only because she thinks he’s homosexual and that she thinks that having a really cool gay friend is...well...cool.  There is also an insidiously funny moment when Dave – dressed as Kick-Ass – climbs through Katie’s bedroom window to surprise her.  Now, Katie rightfully responds not with lustful desire, but with instant panic and fear: she grabs a baseball bat and proceeds to beat what she thinks is a sex prowler. 

Perhaps the most incendiary laughs come with the hopelessly unstable father/daughter relationship between Big Daddy and Hit-Girl.  Now, this father loves his daughter as much as any other normal dad (they go bowling and out for ice cream), but part of his training of her involves shooting her at point blank range while she sports a bullet proof vest so she can feel what it would be like in battle.  This is to toughen her up, and in battle she indeed is a one-girl army.  One of the most uproarious scenes involves her telling her father what she wants for her birthday: she jokingly tells him that she a puppy, which leaves him dismayed and depressed.  When she reveals that she was joking and really wants a cool knife, a wash of relief falls over his face. The fact that his pre-teen daughter wants small, concealable weapons touches his heart.

This relationship – and the Hit-Girl character herself - is also a source of the film’s largest controversy.  After an uncensored trailer of KICK-ASS hit the Internet the film was lambasted by family advocacy groups, mostly out of the pre-pubescent Hit-Girl uttering a foul word that begins with "c" and rhymes with “hunt.”  One spokesman for the Australian Family Association went even further by saying that Hit-Girl’s language was “offensive” and that her relationship with Big Daddy lacked “the saving grace of the bloodless victory of traditional superheroes.”  Then came the infamous Roger Ebert review where he essentially described the film as indefensible.

Now...ponder this: conservative filmgoers and critics seem more shocked and dismayed by Hit-Girl’s one-time usage of the c-bomb than by the multitude of times in the film where she willfully dispatches with hooligans in scenes of video game sadism.  Moreover, this is satire, not ostensibly a reality-based representation of a real father/daughter bond.  Moments involving Hit-Girl murdering countless armed henchmen have a sort of detachment from reality and a cartoonish preposterous of similar moments from KILL BILL.  Taking them literally and seriously is foolhardy.  And as for the lack of "traditionalism" in KICK-ASS that classic comic books of the past have stood for...well...that's precisely what KICK-ASS is mocking: the film's prime motive is to methodically destabilize the Puritanical flourishes and impulses of past comics, not to pay slavish tribute to them.

Furthermore, The Big Daddy/ Hit-Girl characters are executed to reveal a more humorously macabre alternative version of the Batman and Robin archetypes for hero and sidekick, which shows what could happen when a revenge-filled madmen with emotional scars decides to become a vigilante and have a kid sidekick.  Lastly, and I’ll make this quick, this is not the first time the movies have had painfully young actresses playing morally questionable personas: There was Jodi Foster as a teen hooker in TAXI DRIVER, Natalie Portman as a young assassin trainee in THE PROFESSIONAL, and, yes, a very young, possessed Linda Blair in THE EXORCIST that did indescribable things to herself.  Hit-Girl is not meant to hold a mirror to reality at all; she exists primarily as one focal point for the film’s satire.  Beyond that, there is no denying that she is the most hard-edged, ruthless and unnervingly cool action hero of the year, regardless of age.  Complimenting this is Cage’s performance as Big Daddy (which riotously echoes the dramatic pauses of Adam West) that helps to sell that this film is to be played for dark laughs first and foremost.   

The real shock of KICK-ASS may just be in its marketing, which seems to have gone out of its way to target young teens, which is offensive in its own right: The film is potty-mouthed to the max, loaded with innuendo, and typified by violence very worthy of a hard R-rating (this comic film is for adults only).  Promoting this film to a youthful demographic is wrong (during the screening I saw some parents with squirming toddlers, which was so unnerving that it left me squirming as well).  Controversies aside – and if you look at the resulting film for its intended mature audience – KICK-ASS emerges as an absolute satirical juggernaut that grabs your from frame one and never lets you loose to feel totally comfortable.  The film is slickly made, thanklessly acted, has a Tarantino-esque sense for seditious grandstanding with the material, and, most crucially, this is a successfully scathing and celebratory tip of the hat to classic comics of yesteryear and a ferociously giddy riff on modern media.  KICK-ASS is devilishly smart, habitually outrageous, and joyously unhinged without much in the way of decorum.  It knows its targets, understands them, and shows both appreciation and disdain for them…and it does so with its teeth clenched, its fists pumped in the air, and with a gnarly lack of good will and civility.

The definition of a great satire, for sure.

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