Sense of Wonder: Kick-Ass Movie or Kiss-Ass Critics?

he self-styled superhero rescues a helpless victim of street crime.
The self-styled superhero risks his own life to rescue a helpless victim of street crime.

Well, the geek, fan-boy wet-dream of a movie known as KICK-ASS is now in theatres, and critical reaction has been adoringly positive (one might even say “kiss ass” in its kindness), with the Rotten Tomatoes tomato-meter currently registering a 77% approval rating and declaring the critical consensus to be that the film “takes the comic adaptation genre to new levels of visual style, bloody violence, and gleeful profanity.”
Sounds like a rockin’, rowdy good-time, and it is – up to a point. The problem – for me, at least – is that the point is well short of the superlatives being lavish on the film. For all its alleged edginess, KICK-ASS actually plays it safe; it only pretends to be dangerous. Its single memorable innovation is the sight of an eleven-year-old girl effortlessly dispatching bad guys like a tiny-tot version of the Bride in KILL BILL, but after the novelty wears off, there’s not a lot left to the movie, which never really dares to do anything really daring.
Not that the critics have noticed in their rush to heap praise on the film. In one typical example,  Brian Tallerico at HollywoodChicago.com writes:

With a half dozen superhero movies every year that feel as if they were created by a Hollywood blockbuster machine, it’s so refreshing to see one with its own distinct, subversive personality.

Equally ecstatic, Chris Vognar – writing for the Dallas Morning News –  claims that KICK-ASS…

“…has the courage of its genre convictions. It doesn’t have even a whiff of market testing. It does everything on its own terms, and in this age of McMansion movies, that’s a super accomplishment.”

Well, yeah, I suppose so – except that that KICK-ASS’s own terms are as carefully calculated as any McMansion movie. It’s the fake courage that serves up blood for its superficial shock value but would never dream of doing anything truly shocking (even the alleged heart-felt moments are buried beneath a wash of too-cool-to-be-true archness intended to distance us from – and inure us to – any potential sting). Sure, timid viewers may be appalled by the level of violence, but that’s part of the appeal to the target audience, who can then shake their heads at the squares and pat themselves on the back while chortling “We’re cool and they’re not!”.
Although KICK-ASS pretends to be a real-world variation on the costumed crime-fighter genre, its presentation of “reality” is ultimately less convincing that that of THE DARK KNIGHT.  The only semblance of realism comes during the first act, when Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) suits up as the titular character; the film manages a queasy suspense as this inexperienced, naive kid gets himself into dangerous situations that turn out as badly for him as for the criminals he is trying to fight. Its best moment comes when “Kick-Ass” pretty much gets his own ass kicked while defending a fallen man from three attackers. The only thing the would-be superhero truly accomplishes is keeping the crooks busy until police sirens approach, scaring them off. His true moment of heroism (which is ultimately forgotten by the film) comes when one of the attackers pulls a knife and offers him the choice: walk away, or die. Breathless, beaten, probably unable to mount any defense, Dave refuses to back off. It’s easy to take a stand when you’re impervious to bullets; it takes real guts when you life is on the line.
Unfortunately,  once Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) show up, the film abandons this approach, retreating into safely familiar superhero territory, in which our caped crusaders can effortless dispatch numerous  bad guys while pausing only long enough between kills to deliver some carefully calculated bon mot of the “Hast La Vista” variety.
As escapism, this sort of thing is decently entertaining, but it’s hardly ground-breaking; even the allegedly “new levels of visual stylization” consist of nothing we haven’t seen before: comic book-style montages from SPEED RACER, gun play from John Woo (who is at least referenced in the dialogue so I guess we can’t fault KICK-ASS here), and martial arts from just about every Western imitation of Hong Kong action films in the last decade.
By the time KICK-ASS builds to its climax, it has gone so far down the rabbit hole that genuine suspense is lost; it’s just empty spectacle, watching the villains get their come-uppance (which, to be fair, they justly deserve, and it is fun watching them get it). As if realizing this, the film turns around and hands mob boss Frank D’Amico a Death Battle Exemption, turning him into the only character in the film who can possibly defeat Hit Girl. It’s rather like the ending of a FRIDAY THE 13TH film but with the Final Girl and Jason roles reversed; in this case, the girl is the formerly unstoppable killing machine, who suddenly finds herself working up a sweat because she is no longer able to dispatch her prey in the blink of an eye.
No doubt we are supposed to be concerned by this turn of events, but the film’s overall artificiality refuses to recede and allow a genuine emotion to the surface; we get only the faux-suspense of obligatory screenwriting (the villain cannot be allowed to die too easily – that would not be satisfying). Even the blood looks phony, and the fallen heroine’s reactions are no more convincing. (It’s a good thing that the Hit Girl character is costumed and masked, allowing for stunt doubles to sell the action, because the actual acting performance, all scowling faces and foul-mouthed one-liners, falls short; it feels just like what it is – a little kid pretending to be tough.)
Had KICK-ASS been all it’s cracked up to be, this climactic moment would have reached critical mass, hitting the audience hard over the head with the blunt force trauma of what happens when fantasy collides with messy reality. Maybe dressing up in a costume and fighting dangerous criminals is not the brightest  idea; especially it’s not a good way to raise a daughter. Addressing these questions would have created emotional consequences undermining the simple revenge-fantasy storyline, but it would have elevated the film to a level at which it would have deserved the praise it is receiving.
Instead, it’s just another superhero film, R-rated but not really adult, the violence and  profanity just a misleading sheen hiding the otherwise conventional approach (which includes a James Bond-style jet-pack, complete with machine guns). If you want to feel the sting of what happens when a believable character finds himself in over his head, back against the wall, and no longer confident that he can prevail, check out the worried expression on Robert Downey Jr’s face in the IRON MAN 2 trailer after Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) demolishes his race car – that single, fleeting glimpse carries more weight than all of KICK-ASS.
Oh, and lest we forget, this supposedly subversive KICK-ASS, in the worst tradition of Hollywood McMovies, ends with a promise of a sequel, and seals the deal by quoting from one of those Hollywood blockbuster machines. They used to say imitation is the truest form of flattery. Now we might say that subversion is the newest form of imitation.
FULL DISCLOSURE: This article was written in something of a devil’s advocate mode, in response to the wildly positive critical response to a film that I found only mildly entertaining. Nothing here should be taken to imply that KICK-ASS is bad filmmaking, simply that critical assertions about its “having the courage of its convictions” are somewhat over-stated. As an oddball superhero film, it is miles beyond something like THE SPIRIT, and as a depiction of life among geek culture, I’ll take it over MALLRATS any day. If you want a more positive assessment of the film;s virtues, check out our previously published review by Dennis Routledge Tizzard, who calls it “inventive, cool, and funnier than a Bugs Bunny Saturday morning cartoon.”
P.S.–Not that this anything to do with the theme of this editorial, but I have to ask: Am I the only one who thinks it weird that Elizabeth McGovern, who in the ’80s seemed poised to become a major star with roles in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and THE BEDROOM WINDOW, is now reduced to playing virtually the same role back-to-back in this and CLASH OF THE TITANS: a a mother who dies so early in the opening reel that you don’t even realize who played the character until you see the credits role at the end.
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4 Replies to “Sense of Wonder: Kick-Ass Movie or Kiss-Ass Critics?”

  1. What I gather from this review is… your saying a movie based in a fantasy world doesn’t take itself very seriously and depicts actions in an unrealistic matter. It’s a superhero movie, what was to be expected. The trailers very clearly showed that their was a character named Hit Girl that could very easily dispatch multiple enemies at once. There was no trickery or surprise. It wasn’t like Inglourious Basterds where you had no idea it wasn’t about the basterds. The movie wasn’t based on some grand assumption that it was going to accurately depict what would occur if you went up against the mob on your own.
    Would the movie be better if Hit Girl and Kick Ass got brutally murdered for going up against the mob. It’s a action adventure superhero movie that was meant to entertain and make you laugh. It delivered on every expectation that you would’ve had from the trailers. So it wasn’t the most original idea, it was entertaining, had great characters, and you left happy. If your the type that doesn’t enjoy these types of films, it wouldn’t have mattered what they did, you’d still find something to complain about.

  2. I never get what it is with people who complain “it wouldn’t matter what they did, you’d still find something to complain about.” How do you know this? You don’t of course. You’re just saying it.
    KICK-ASS goes out of its way to set itself up as a story about what would happen when an ordinary guy living an ordinary life in the ordinary world tries to turn himself into a costumed crime-fighter. It is not supposed to be set in a fantasy world, and it is not supposed to be a typical superhero movie. But that is what it turns into.
    My point is not that KICK-ASS is bad, just that it’s not the subversive, mega-awesome accomplisment that some critics have suggested. Beneath the hip, glitzy sheen, it’s pretty much the same old thing. Which is fine if you like the same old thing; just don’t pretend it’s something new.

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