Kick-Ass (2010) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use, some involving children
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Mark Strong, Nicolas Cage, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Lyndsy Fonseca, Clark Duke, Evan Peters, Omari Hardwick, Michael Rispoli, Garrett M. Brown, Stu 'Large' Riley, Dexter Fletcher
Cameo: Elizabeth McGovern, Craig Ferguson, Xander Berkeley
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn (based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.)
Review published August 17, 2010
Many before me have commented that Kick-Ass, the movie, is also a kick-ass movie, and I'll just say that I agree with that assessment. Having been a minor fan of the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. mini-series, which purports to set the events in a real world where there are no people with real superpowers, I enjoyed it for its semi-comedic tone and an organic story independent of traditional comic book universes. It wasn't "Watchmen" but it did stand out. But unlike Watchmen, I do think that the movie based on the comic actually manages to exceed the entertainment value of its print counterpart. And it is a pure piece of entertainment, not trying to bring home any morals, messages, or change the comic book world in one fell swoop. It just wants to razzle-dazzle up a comic book story, poking fun at teens, media, and most of all, other comics in a way that delivers good-natured ribbing for the medium that stands more as an homage without ridicule.
Kick-Ass is an action movie first and foremost, but unique in that it is a raunchy teen/family values film part of the time -- except one with heroes and criminals. Think part Tarantino (the constant homage, especially in its soundtrack, is a dead giveaway, not to mention the comic violence) and part Judd Apatow (sex, drugs, pop culture, objectified hotties who love dweebs and keen observations on typical male-centric problems). It's a copycat of a film, but it copies from the best, and copies quite well. But even when in dumb teen comedy mode, which it is about half of the time, it's never dumb, and neither is it when in dumb action movie mode, which is the other half. What it has are characters we come to care about, moments of danger that are palpable even when undercut by silly humor, and a slick, sometimes brilliant sense of visual and musical energy that pulsates at just the right moments. But above all of this, it never loses its tone, allowing the funny moments to not be lost amid the violence and allowing the serious moments to not be undercut by its intentionally juvenile earnestness.
Aaron Johnson (The Illusionist, Shanghai Knights) stars as Dave, a misfit teen, not too popular with the other kids. But this ordinary kid won't be ordinary long when he makes the decision that he's sick of bullies and crooks and people who take advantage of others while the community just looks the other way. He decides he's going to emulate his favorite superheroes by becoming one himself, but without powers, fighting skills, or even money for a good costume (he uses a stylish wetsuit), it's going to be hard to strike fear in the neighborhood gangs. He learns soon enough how to at least not embarrass himself in a fight, and soon becomes an internet sensation after being filmed taking on three thugs on his own. Soon he has a growing list in his inbox of misdeeds to rectify, some of which begins to draw the ire of the city's toughest crime boss, Frank D'Amico (Strong, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), who doesn't like some kid meddling with his business by giving the people a reason to believe.
There's more to the story than just being this generation's The Last Dragon. Interwoven in Dave's tale is the story of a more seasoned duo of vigilantes known as Big Daddy (Cage, Knowing) and Hit Girl (Moretz, The Eye), who look and act like an extremely deadly version of Batman and Robin if they were armed to the teeth and absolutely ruthless. Turns out they have a vendetta against D'Amico on their own, so their paths do cross with Dave's often. Meanwhile, D'Amico's own son decides he's tired of being taken for granted as not being old or ready enough to learn about the "family business", concocting an alter ego of his own dubbed Red Mist, who works as a sort of mole for costumed heroes in order to gain information of use to his father's operation.
Credit solid casting on making these comic figures come to life. Aaron Johnson is inherently likeable as a sort of Peter Parker-esque dweeby outcast, played with a genuineness that is perfect for the part. Nicolas Cage plays more sullen, burdened by the loss of his wife due to circumstances that dictate his revenge story on D'Amico. When in Big Daddy costume, Cage riffs on the old Adam West mannered and comical style from the old "Batman" television series, which is apropos due to the character so closely resembling Batman (a fact which doesn't go unnoticed by at least one character). Hit Girl is the scene stealing character played by Chloe Moretz, who looks like a short female version of Robin, with the attitude of the Powerpuff Girls' Buttercup, if she had an extremely potty mouth.
Kick-Ass is directed with perfect style by Matthew Vaughn, who made the cult gangster film Layer Cake and the quaint fantasy Stardust, which was also adapted from a graphic novel. Vaughn shows an adeptness with visual imagery, especially comfortable working with CGI and knows how to mix dark brutality with comic vulgarity in a way that works well for people who aren't already upset at the story for purely moral grounds (seeing a young girl trained in the ways of killing and swearing alone probably will have some viewers dismissive). It cribs Tarantino something fierce, but given that Quentin himself is the master of lifting styles, it's difficult to call Vaughn out for it. He doesn't match Tarantino at his best, but he does sidestep the excessive length and gross indulgences of Tarantino at his worst, so he comes out about even.
While Kick-Ass takes place in a world where there are no superpowers, it very much plays in the world of comics, with plenty of irony, homage, tongue-in-cheek style and ridiculous physics liberally utilized throughout. It's a fun, irreverent film that delivers very good cinematic thriller, comedy, action, and soap opera elements that are part and parcel the appeal of comic books at their best. It's not The Dark Knight in terms of complexity or thematic resonance, but, if you can handle the morally questionable child endangerment subtext and extreme violence and language, it's easily as fun and invigorating as Spider-Man and Iron Man, if not more so.
-- Followed by Kick-Ass 2 (2013).
©2010 Vince Leo