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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Kick-Ass (2010)

Kick-Ass_film_poster

KICK-ASS is inventive, cool and funnier than a Bugs Bunny Saturday morning cartoon.

Over the last decade it has become an industry standard for studios to release at least one superhero film as a tent-pole for their summer schedule. More recently, having been kick-started by SIN CITY, a new trend has surfaced: releasing smaller budgeted, more violent comic book adaptations around the Easter holidays. Films such as 300 and WATCHMEN aren’t particularly suitable for summertime, in which cinemas are dominated by mass-appeal blockbusters; these films stand more of a chance in an earlier slot in the year.
New entry in this strategic release model is KICK-ASS, based upon Mark Miller’s extremely violent comic book of the same name and directed by Matthew Vaughn (LAYER CAKE, STARDUST). The story concerns Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), an unnoticed high school student and comic book fan who one day decides to become a super-hero, even though he has no powers, training, or meaningful reason to do so. KICK-ASS does exactly what it says on the tin and, although it’s let down by a few tonal missteps, is best summed up as a wildly entertaining synthesis of SPIDER-MAN and KILL BILL.
Make no mistake, KICK-ASS is tremendously violent, and it doesn’t give a damn if you’re offended by it. Bullets fly, legs are severed and, in one of the film’s most splatter-hungry moments, a man is blown up in an industrial microwave. To make matters worse (read: better) a lot of the time the pain is being dealt out by a twelve year-old girl, uttering profanity-ridden punch lines such as, “OK you c*nts, let’s see what you can do now”. The film then, is clearly not one to take grandma to see on the Sunday matinee.
The ensuing fight scenes are some of the best I’ve seen in years: inventive, cool and funnier than a Bugs Bunny Saturday morning cartoon. The two stand-out sequences would have to be the first involving ‘Hit-Girl’ (the previously mentioned twelve-year-old, played by Chloe Moretz) – which is hilariously abrupt and highly visceral – and the slick and satisfying one-take attack by ‘Big Daddy’ (Hit-Girl’s father and partner in crime, played by Nicolas Cage) upon a warehouse full of gangsters.
20091222_164609_hitgirl_LKICK-ASS is more than a collection of Tarantino-worthy action set-pieces, however; most of the story focuses on Dave’s adolescent trials and tribulations. They aren’t, as you might expect, riddled with Peter Parkeresque clichés and outdated morality struggles; the story attempts to take a more modern and humorous look at today’s teenagers. Dave isn’t a loner or a complete loser but isn’t exactly one of the popular kids either, marking a refreshing twist in genre conventions.
The insertion of pop-culture references such as YouTube and MySpace, as well as a sub-plot which sees Dave pretend to be gay in order to get close to the girl of his dreams, make the film much more culturally relevant. KICK-ASS also works very well as an amusing parody of superhero films, beginning with a false-start involving an Armenian teenager testing out his Icarus-inspired costume and plunging head-first into a taxi rather than soaring into the skies.
In fact, Vaughn has so much to pack into KICK-ASS that it could have easily become an overly long mess of ideas. The director pulls it off, fortunately, by employing a swift and energetic pace that keeps almost the entire narrative intact in less than two hours – a worthy achievement in and of itself. The soundtrack is similarly energetic and fun, comprising of a selection of modern licensed tracks, which give the film an extra sheen of cool. The film is also impressive from a technical standpoint, taking most of its stylistic cues from the medium it’s adapting.
Caption cards reading “Meanwhile” and “Six months later”, a bright and bold colour pallet, as well as a gorgeously animated flashback, all aid in creating the look of a comic book come to life. The acting is first class, and you can tell everyone involved had a blast making the thing. Aaron Johnson does a good job of making Dave’s somewhat senseless actions seem empathetic, and Chloe Moretz seems an actress wise beyond her years; she makes you truly believe a twelve-year-old girl could kick that much ass. Nicolas Cage is also in rare comedic top form here, with a perfect deadpan delivery and brilliant parody of Adam West’s Batman.
For the most part, KICK-ASS is a very faithful adaptation of the comic book, and for that alone it should be praised. Most of the films pitfalls, however, occur when it chooses to stray too far from the source material. Notable changes to the relationship between Dave and his love interest, Big Daddy’s history, and the ending of the story only make the film cheesier and more fantastical than it needed be. For a film seemingly so intent on creating a semi-realistic world in which real people try to be superheroes, additions such as a jet-pack with mini-guns attached simply seem unnecessary (even if they are fun in their own way).
Additionally, the conclusion of the Dave’s romantic aspirations clashed with the overall tone of the film, and there is also a slight awkwardness to some moments in which tragedy and comedy are blended. Nevertheless, KICK-ASS is the most invigorating and exciting comic book adaptation to come along for a long time and is certainly not to be missed.
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KICK-ASS (2010). Director: Matthew Vaughn. Writer: Jane Goldman (screenplay) and Mark Miller (original comic). Cast: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Moretz and Nicolas Cage.
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Screenwriter Jane Goldman on Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass (2010)
Chloe Moretz as Hit-Girl

The Guardian has posted a slightly schizophrenic interview with Jane Goldman, who co-wrote the script for the upcoming KICK-ASS with director Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book by Mark Millar. I say “schizophrenic” because, under fairly pointed questioning by Elizabeth Day, Goldman says some rather contradictory things while trying to defend the film. At issue is the presumed controversy over a film depicting the eleven-year-old character Hit-Girl as a foul-mouthed female assassin. Goldman leap frogs from claiming that KICK-ASS is a feminist statement that treats violence in a serious way, with emotional consequences, to arguing that that the film is a light, comic book romp that does not raise difficult emotional issues.
First the serious side:

“She [Hit-Girl] is genuinely dangerous, she’s genuinely mad. It’s not her fault: she’s been raised in this environment where she doesn’t know anything different. She’s unwittingly part of a folie a deux.”
[…]
“You very much see the consequences of violence in the film. I think that films that could be said to glamorise violence are ones where there isn’t a physical or emotional consequence, where you have people fire off rounds and everyone is dying off cleanly and it doesn’t matter, whereas here, people are bereaved, people are hospitalised, it’s kind of unpleasant.

Sounds like heavy duty stuff, right? So Day asks about the consequences of casting thirteen-year-old actress Chloe Moretz in the role, and Goldman changes gears:

“The fact that she’s actually enacting the violence is in many ways probably less traumatic for a child actor than a lot of films where the children are victims of violence – serious films where they’re the victims of violence at the hands of family members. I think actually, emotionally, that’s a lot more disturbing for a child actor whereas this is comic book; it’s light. I don’t think it raises any difficult emotional issues for a child to process.”

Really? So the unpleasant consequences of violence, including grief and hospitalization, are not difficult emotional issues; it’s all just good, clean fun?
I don’t see much to get up in arms over the KICK-ASS controversy. Does KICK-ASS glamorize vigilante violence? Well, isn’t that the whole point of the caped-crimefighter genre? I doubt the film will be harmful; the question is whether it will be good or bad (advance word suggests good). But clearly, the filmmakers were deliberately courting controversy, and they got what they wanted. So it’s a bit odd to hear Goldman talking out of both sides of her mouth while trying to explain the controversy away.
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