I’ll start by addressing the pun that will be made by so many bloggers over the next few weeks: No, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass does not kick ass. It is a flawed but mostly enjoyable film that is better than most of what is currently playing in the major theaters, but you’d lose nothing by waiting for DVD. Its trailers promised a hyper-violent, tongue-in-cheek superhero movie, and it delivers, just much better on one count than the other.
This is the story of Dave Lizewski. Dave, played by Aaron Johnson, is a normal high school student, with no particular talents or interests beyond hanging out with his friends, reading comic books and masturbating. In his voice-over, Dave muses “Like most people my age, I just existed.” But one day Dave has an idea: If there are real villains in the world, why can’t there be real heroes? And so, with nothing but a silly costume and a desire to do some good, Dave brands himself “Kick-Ass” and decides to go out and enact some vigilante justice. Unfortunately, while stopping his first crime, Dave is stabbed and hit by a car. The accident damages his nerves, making him less sensitive to pain, and allows him to draw interest from his crush, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), who just happens to think he’s gay. Once he’s healed, Dave puts his suit back on and finally succeeds in stopping his crime, which leads to a youtube video of his exploits, national attention and a Myspace page full of people requesting help (yes, seeing Myspace does make it feel a bit outdated).
But Dave is not the only vigilante in town. Damon and Mindy Macready (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace-Moretz) have been preparing for years to wage a vigilante campaign against New York’s biggest mob boss, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Even though Mindy is only eleven years old, she is as tough and violent as anyone else in the film. As his henchmen begin to get killed off, Frank suspects that it’s the work of Kick-Ass, and sends his son Chris (Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse) out as a superhero named Red Mist to find Kick-Ass. As Dave struggles to balance his relationship with Katie and his new lifestyle, the war between the vigilantes and the mob grows increasingly intense, leading to a series of betrayals and hyper-violent shootouts.
As you would expect from a story about a bunch of nerds dressed in costumes fighting crime, the film is full of supposedly comedic references to other superheroes and superhero culture in general. Unfortunately, these are the film’s weakest points. Throwing in an occasional reference to Watchmen doesn’t seem particularly interesting when your film itself is so obviously influenced by the classic comic. The film straddles an odd line, as it tries to force much of the comedy on the audience (a lot of it does work) and maintain a serious tone through the second half. There are other flaws, most notably some poorly handled exposition and the development of Chris and Katie, both of whom make various decisions throughout the story that seem completely contradictory to their characters. Thankfully, in both cases the actors are strong enough to overcome these script flaws. While there are some laughs from just seeing McLovin as a superhero, Mintz-Plasse moves beyond the role that made him famous and adds a little depth to what could have easily been just another less likable nerd. Fonseca has proven with this and Hot Tub Time Machine that she has enough comedic timing to make a name for herself, and she does a better job with the more dramatic take on the normally dull “superhero’s girlfriend” role. The real standouts of the cast though are young Chloe Grace-Moretz and Nic Cage. Mindy is the film’s most violent, foul-mouthed character, and many people have expressed outrage at such a young girl behaving like this, but it’s her strength as an actress that stops it from being exploitative. Mindy is an immensely damaged young girl, probably warped beyond repair, and there are few young actresses that could get that in alongside the comedy inherent to an 11 year old superhero. Cage, of course, has always been excellent in the right role. Most of these roles have been in smaller films that didn’t make it to the local multiplex, so it’s refreshing to see him at his best in a film like this. In fact, it may be the best performance he’s ever given in a mainstream film. Like his daughter, Damon is a broken person who should not be anywhere near the apartment full of guns where he and Mindy sleep, and like his young costar, Cage captures that insanity and hides it behind a face of madcap hilarity. His Shatner-style delivery while in costume is one of the funniest parts of the film, and is by far the most successful reference to other superhero films, making fun of Christian Bale’s ridiculous growl in the recent Batman films.
Matthew Vaughn made his name producing Guy Ritchie’s late 90s output, and his first feature, 2004’s Layer Cake, owed heavily to Ritchie’s annoying post-Tarantino style of filmmaking. Thankfully, unlike his friend, Vaughn has matured as a filmmaker, and this is among the most aesthetically pleasing superhero films to come out of Hollywood. This doesn’t come through in the more tongue-in-cheek first half, but rather in the second, which is far closer to a regular superhero film. There are sequences here that almost rival Michael Mann’s Collateral, arguably the best looking American action film of the last decade, if not ever, in terms of how Vaughn films the action. And oh what action it is. The strongest moments in the film come when it drops the obvious irony and allows the audience to appreciate the simple joy of watching an eleven year-old girl brutally killing a room full of henchmen or the amazement that will come after the film’s final kill, one of the most amusing I can remember in a movie. Thankfully, the film does not condone the actions of Damon and Mindy, who seem to enjoy slaughter, but instead asks us to laugh at them. There’s some discussion of the psychological motivations of the vigilante, but Vaughn and Mark Millar, who wrote the comic that the film is based on, avoid that territory, already so thoroughly covered in Watchmen (the comic, not the movie). That would not fit in this film, even if it would be an easy road to cover. At its worst, this is a film that tries to do too much, by throwing jokes where they aren’t needed and adding drama to funny moments, but at its best, Kick-Ass is simply fun, and occasionally that’s enough.
Kick-Ass is rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use – some involving children.
It opens everywhere on April 16th, 2010.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn; written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn; based on the comic book series by Mark Millar; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Eddie Hamilton and Jon Harris; original music by Ilan Eshkeri and Henry Jackman; art director, Russell De Rozario; produced by Matthew Vaughn, Brad Pitt, Adam Bohling, Tarquin Pack, David Reid and Kris Thykier; distributed by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes.
With: Aaron Johnson (Dave Lizewski/Kick Ass), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Chris D’Amico/Red Mist), Chloe Grace-Moretz (Mindy Macready/Hit Girl), Nicolas Cage (Damon Macready/Big Daddy), Mark Strong (Frank D’Amico), Lyndsy Fonseca (Katie) and Clark Duke (Marty).