Kick-Ass is the logical culmination of the last decade of popular American cinema, displaying many of the trends we’ve seen in recent memory and upping them to their nth degree. Consider that this film includes the following: the manifestation of the superhero origin story in its most extreme form; the over-stylization of balletic violence that has become a hallmark of many action films; the continued upswing of Nicolas Cage’s career, begun with Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and now crystallized in his preposterous/hilarious performance in this film; the lionization of Chloe Grace Moretz, not only as an action star for this generation (whether you find that disturbing or not), but as an actress to be taken seriously. Putting all of that aside, director Matthew Vaughn has created an irresistible take on the superhero film, filled with humor and wanton violence. Borrowing over $40 million to produce the film independently, Vaughn has created something quite unlike the superhero films that have preceded this. For that reason alone, it’s something that’s worth seeing in theaters this weekend.
The story of the film is fairly basic: David Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), just your average high schooler, lives a fairly monotonous existence. One day, he dons a scuba suit and tries to find out exactly what would happen if a normal person tried to fight crime, sans super-power or super-weapons. When one of his acts of vigilantism spreads virally around the internet, he provokes the ire of crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and the attention of several other costumed crime-fighters (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz).
Director Matthew Vaughn’s strengths lie not necessarily in his creation of a groundbreaking new visual style, but rather in his ability to explicitly and seamlessly fuse the styles of previous films and directors to form something that is very much his own. There are shots and sequences that reference scenes from films such as The Matrix and Doom, as well as every John Woo movie ever made. The score here borrows heavily from John Murphy’s other works, such as his scores from 28 Days Later and Sunshine, actually evoking the moods of those films. The protagonist of the film even name-checks American Beauty, drawing laughs in both screenings that I was in. In other words, Matthew Vaughn has successfully “Quentin Tarantino’d” the action and comic book superhero genres. In doing so, he’s proven himself an apt storyteller and created a crowd-pleaser that pulls all the right film geek heartstrings.
All of the performances in the film are highly enjoyable but two bear highlighting. Aaron Johnson, who first popped onto my radar in the forthcoming John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, is unrecognizable as protagonist David Lizewski in this film. Between his crackly American accent and his unassuming relatability, I’m sold that this guy is at the beginning of a very long and successful career in Hollywood.
And by now, you’ve probably all heard about Chloe Grace Moretz’s performance as Hit Girl. Hit Girl essentially steals this film and Moretz’s performance is perfect, juxtaposing the know-how and apathy-towards-humanity of a cold-blooded killer with her characteristic adorable-ness. It’s very easy to argue that casting someone this young as Hit Girl is an act of manipulation, a cheap way to provoke some kind of reaction from the audience, whether good or bad. From my own experience, the matter-of-fact fashion in which she disposes of criminals would have chilled me to the bone, but for everyone in my theater, cheering and having such a blast watching it. I also found it interesting that whenever Hit Girl was eviscerating a baddie, the audience had no compunction about applauding, but when the violence was being inflicted upon her, everyone gasped in shock and horror. Is it a testament to Moretz’s performance, or just a visceral response to the fact that we’re seeing a grown person kicking the crap out of a 12-year-old? I think it’s a matter that is up for debate, but either way, the film ventures into sensitive realms in the way it depicts the intersections of children and violence.
One well-known and respected critic remarked in his review of Kick-Ass that Hit Girl’s cold-bloodedness is troubling. “I know, I know. This is a satire,” he concedes, “But a satire of what?” Based on what I’ve read about Millar’s intentions for the comic book, I think he was trying to comment on the ridiculousness of the superhero concept. The idea that normal, everyday people might don costumes and try to take on criminals is, on its face, fairly ludicrous. Those that actually do this may suffer from dementia, amorality, delusions, or all of the above. Millar simply takes that idea to its logical extreme. While the violence in the film is brutal, it’s so over-the-top that it’s clear Vaughn wants us not just to revel in the violence itself, but in the fact of its excess. If people actually became “superheroes” in real life and were exceedingly good at it, it wouldn’t be glamorous; it would be extremely messy, unrewarding, and probably very disturbing.
As for the claim that children under the age of 18 will be unduly influenced by seeing this R-rated film, I think that’s more of an indictment of American parents and the lax rules at movie theaters than anything the filmmakers have done.
Superhero films are escapist fantasies, appealing to that part of our psyche that longs for an all-powerful protector, and that believes maybe deep down, we each have the capacity for such feats. For two hours, we are asked to watch these films and believe in the impossible. When Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman was released, its tagline, “You will believe a man can fly,” was simultaneously enigmatic and inspiring. Along those lines, the tagline of Kick-Ass should be “You will believe a 12-year-old girl can lay waste to an entire criminal organization using nothing but knives, small arms, and martial arts.”
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10