Monday, April 19, 2010

Do You KICK-ASS ...?!?!

KICK-ASS Review:

- What makes KICK-ASS so much fun is that, like it or not, it feels like a comic book movie of and for our time. So many of these iconic characters, they are iconic for a reason, but they're also based on concepts from as far back as the 1930's. Characters like Superman, Batman, and Spiderman are able to persevere because they are continually reimagined for the modern age. But it's also interesting to dream of heroes who spawned from the age of YouTube and Facebook and XBOX Live. KICK-ASS is that concept - it's brash, it's violent, it's over-the-top - but it also feels new and fresh and thoroughly modern. It's a mash-up of comic book lore with millenial pop-culture and geekdom. Kick-Ass doesn't deconstruct superheroes or comic books with the literary intelligence of Watchmen, but that isn't what it's about. It's about shock value, about wish-fulfillment, about taking a premise and twisting it from real-world plausibility to over-the-top superhero fantasy. Kick-Ass does contain some wry commentary on our crass and uncensored digital age, but at the end of the day, it's a movie that dishes out its uberviolence with a wink and a smile. Kick-Ass wants you to be shocked and offended by the notion of an eleven-year-old, foul-mouthed girl who's been trained since birth to be a deadly masked vigilante. If that concept flat-out offends you, then Kick-Ass might not be for you. But if there's something so brash, so brazen, so entertainingly wrong about this premise that you can't help but smile at it, then you're going to have a blast with Kick-Ass.

Kick-Ass is based on a recent comic book series by writer Mark Millar and artist John Romita Jr. Millar has already had one of his original works - WANTED - translated to the screen (though in a fairly loose adaptation), and he's a writer whose high-concept stories and cinematic storytelling style have made his works a natural it for Hollywood. Even in the comics world though, I think there's something of a love/hate relationship between the fans and Millar. People appreciate how hard he works to create new ideas and tell new stories, pushing the limits of the medium. His relentless self-hype, combined with his penchant for violent, hardcore, R-rated takes on superheroes has made him a guy who attracts a lot of attention and whose books sell relatively well in an oversaturated but underperforming comic book market. At the same time, some have criticized his work as emphasizing style over substance, pandering to fanboys rather than striving for higher artistic merit. Millar is the latest in a long line of British writers who have tried to push the comic book medium beyond its usual conventions - Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, and Grant Morrison are some of the names that come to mind. But, if those writers are the comic book equivalents of Terry Gilliam or The Coen Bros, Millar is a bit more in the Michael Bay camp, at least in the minds of some.

But Kick-Ass, especially the movie version, is more Tarantino than Michael Bay. There's a real subversive wit at its core, a real punk-rock sense of nihilism to the story - and a dark sense of humor that plays off of pop culture and comic book conventions. Kick-Ass is filled with knowing riffs on everything from Spiderman to Superman to first-person-shooter games on XBOX. It's a pop-culture mash-up of the highest order.

With that in mind, there's a lot to digest in the movie, and at first glance the premise and the characters don't exactly seem to gel into a single, coherant universe. The basic premise is this: a high-school loser dons a makeshift superhero costume and goes out on patrol to fight crime, just like his comic book heroes. Afterall, his real life is boring - he's a nobody at school, not a hit with the ladies, and he has nothing to lose. The only question for him, as far as being a masked crimefighter goes, is "why not?"

Now, I think the element of Kick-Ass that can be confusing is the fact that it starts out with a fairly reality-based premise - a regular guy who tries to become a real-life superhero - but then morphs into this crazy, comic book like world with larger-than-life villains and an eleven year old girl version of The Punisher called Hit-Girl. But remember, Kick-Ass is essentially about that very transition, that sort of "escalation" that's mentioned at the end of Batman Begins. It's the beginnings of a comic book-like universe forming out of our more mundane "real" universe. Except in this version of events, it's not a strange visitor from another planet or a wealthy playboy-turned-caped-crusader that kicks off the big bang of heroes and villains, it's just some scrawny schmuck in a scuba suit who can barely fight. And that is the central question of Kick-Ass - in this world, in which heroes have saturated pop-culture just like in ours, is Kick-Ass doomed to just be a tabloid flash-in-the pan, a YouTube celebrity, a joke? Or can he take inspiration from his comic book heroes and become a real, actual, superhero? And, in the real world, where bullets kill and blood flows, what does being a superhero even mean? Is Kick-Ass even a hero, or just a psycho? And even if he is well-intentioned, what about the fact that he hangs out with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, two armed-to-the-teeth vigilantes who seem to get off on murdering bad guys? Look, I'm not trying to say that Kick-Ass is a cerebral examination of real-world heroism and morality, but I do think these issues are there on a couple of different levels. To simply dismiss the movie on moral grounds is, I think, to ignore a lot of the intriguing questions that are built into the narrative. If you ignore the pop cultural context, then you might miss all that. If you place Kick-Ass as a reaction to and satire of comic book and fanboy culture though, then you just might appreciate the film on a different level than some of the critics who are quick to bash it.

On another level though, Kick-Ass is just plain fun. Like Kill Bill and other Tarantino flicks, this is a movie that's all about creating those cinematic moments that achieve maximum cool-factor. You can bet that director Matthew Vaughn choreographed Hit-Girl's grand entrance, for example, to get the geeks to smile and exclaim "holy crapballs, Hit-Girl FTW!". And to me, that's cool. So many action movies these days have no idea how to set a pace for maximum dramatic effect. They're so focused on quick cuts and nonstop action that they don't pause to offer the equivalant of that old comic book storytelling technique, the full-page Splash. Well, Kick-Ass is full of cinematic splash pages, scenes and sequences and images that practically reach out through the screen and punch you where it hurts.

The mix of satire and serious ass-kicking that a movie like this demands of its actors means that the cast has to be up to a rather tough challenge of managing this unique balancing act. Luckily, they are up to the task. Aaron Johnson does a fine job as Dave Lizewski, the high school kid who becomes Kick-Ass. He's dorky, but not cartoonishly so, and he and his friends (including Hot Tub time Machine's Clark Duke), engage in a lot of funny and relatable fanboy banner. I wish that there was a real-life hangout spot as cool as their local comic shop-slash-trendy-cafe, but hey, maybe the movie will inspire such a place to open. Meanwhile, you've got Nicholas Cage in full-on Cage-goes-crazy mode, as a mustachioed eccentric who by day is a doting father, and by night is the Batman-wannabe vigilante known as Big Daddy. When in costume, Cage speaks with a straight-up Adam West impression that is a must-see. So hilarious.

But let's face it, the breakout star of Kick-Ass is Chloe Moretz as the pint-sized antihero known as Hit-Girl. Moretz may only be a tween, but, holy crap on a stick, this is one of the most awesomely insane, instantly memorable action movie performances of all-time. When Hit-Girl was introduced in the comic book version of Kick-Ass, that was the moment that you knew that business had picked up. And the same holds true in the movie version. Moretz just nails it. The idea of Hit-Girl was going to be funny and novel no matter what, but I don't think many other child actresses could have pulled it off with this much attitude and aplomb. She's over-the-top enough that you want to burst into applause when she lays the smackdown on some baddies, but real enough that you never lose sight of the fact that, despite the purple hair and bad attitude, she's still just a little girl. Now, criticism of underaged comic book characters dates back to the World War II era, when sidekicks like Robin were deemed subversive and inappopriate (and back then, Batman was more violent and carried a gun). But the fact is, they're a staple of pop culture and of superhero storytelling, which is, afterall, basically a manifestation of childhood and adolescent fantasy. So is it a stretch to imagine a version of Robin that's raised and trained by a more sadistic, more deadly version of Batman? Not really - and that's why Hit-Girl is both an awesomely entertaining character, but also a logical extension of the kid sidekick archtype brought into the more extreme world of Kick-Ass.

On the side of the villains, Mark Strong makes for a good big bad as New York City mob boss Frank D'Amico. And Christopher Mintz-Plasse does a nice job as his geeky son, who eventually befriends Kick-Ass as the hero Red Mist. Still, I think that Red Mist's arc here is a little weaker than in the comic. Whereas his true motivations are a big twist in the comic, in the movie we know his agenda from the beginning, making the character a little less complex, and yet more confusing. In the film, things are pretty murky in terms of Red Mist going back and forth between being sympathetic and just plain evil, and it's one of a few examples where the movie simplifies the comic. Another example is Dave's relationship with his high school crush, Katie. The movie retains one of the book's more darkly funny subplots - that Dave pretends he's gay in order to get closer to Katie. But, the movie's resolution to this is way more cut and dried than in the comics. I thought the darker version in the comics was a bit truer to the story's spirit. Finally, the comic contains a BIG twist with regards to Big Daddy's origin that is wholly absent from the movie. This to me is a big loss, because the twist really emphasizes the fact that all of these characters are playing a part - that they are not anything like the comic book heroes they wish they could be. With Big Daddy being a more genuine character in the movie, I think it emphasizes the narrative disconnect between some of the various ideas in the film.

To that end, I think that as a whole, while the movie does a good job of having all of its disparate elements tie together thematically, there is still some messiness to the plotting. As much as its fun to see the universe of Kick-Ass expand to include crazy characters like Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, there is still something of a jarring effect to the transition. At some point in the middle of the movie, you have to stop and wonder: "hey, wasn't this a movie about a high school kid trying to become a superhero in the real world?" Again, I get that the movie is riffing on this idea of escalation, but, I also think it isn't necessarilly the smoothest mixture of ideas and concepts. Partly, it's because Big Daddy and Hit Girl don't necessarilly come into existence as a direct result of Kick-Ass - in fact, they were active long before him. It's a small point, but it adds to the feeling that the characters were thrown into the mix more for the inherent cool-factor and less because they 100% made sense in this world.

All that said, KICK-ASS is one hell of an entertaining movie. And it's unique and provacative enough that it's already inspiring endless debates among movie critics and fans. And that's why I like stories like Kick-Ass. They're new. They pose new questions that just aren't always possible when dealing with decades-old characters. They take chances. If nothing else, you've got to give Kick-Ass credit for daring to shake things up, for putting a new spin on a sometimes tired genre. In some ways, it's a movie that fully embraces the things that make comics such a vital artform. It throws so many new ideas at you, hits you with so many colorful characters, that it's senseory overload. It comes at you with geek-out moments aplenty, daring you not to smile as Hit-Girl unleashes hell on an army of thugs who never saw it coming. It has big reveals, dozens of "holy-$#%&!" moments, and seems to be on a relentless quest to shock and wow you. Maybe not for everyone, but for a certain segment, this is a movie that does what it sets out to do: kick some ass.

My Grade: A-

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