Status: In theaters (opened 4/16/10)
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
Written By: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
Cinematographer: Ben Davis
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mark Strong, Nicolas Cage
To make something like Kick-Ass, you have to be a pretty big fan of movies. Not in the cerebral, historian-esque manner of a Quentin Tarantino, but more in the Saturday-night-popcorn style of a casual fan. Likewise with a love of comic books. The makers of Kick-Ass seem to revel in the low-brow aspects of the two media, celebrating the trashiest traits of both with their film. It’s a movie based on a comic book that was conceived explicitly for the purpose of being made into a movie, and it wears this lineage as a badge of pride: Kick-Ass goes over the top with trying to differentiate itself, but that’s sort of the point, I think.
It tells the story of Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a “normal” high school kid who wonders—both aloud to his friends (Clark Duke and Evan Peters), and via clumsily sporadic narration—what it’d be like if “normal” people became superheroes. The screenwriters, Jane Goldman and directory Matthew Vaughn, are obviously big fans of Watchmen (Vaughn even allows the venerable “best graphic novel of all time” a brief appearnance in the film, and the choice of color scheme for the movie’s promotional material is pretty obviously intended to invoke this inspiration as well), so they start their story with a similar—though less creative and not as fully realized—premise. But something odd and confusing happens when Lizewski purchases a scuba suit off of eBay and dubs himself “Kick-Ass”: he goes through an (admittedly non-standard) superhero origin-story type of ordeal, and this kid who wondered what it’d be like for somebody without superpowers to become a hero finds himself… with superpowers. Not like the Spider-man kind, mind you, but he definitely has… an advantage, you might say. You’ll see.
Kick-Ass soon learns that he’s not alone; in this world where nobody decides to be a superhero, it turns out some other people have, in fact, done just that. He soon meets a justice-minded ex-cop (Nicolas Cage) and his 11-year-old daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), who go by the names “Big Daddy” and “Hit Girl” when they don their tights. And then Kick-Ass really tips its hand. It turns out that the thing this movie is most interested in is shocking us, and its vehicle for doing so is Hit Girl. It’s a shame, too, because Chloe Moretz is probably the highlight of the film. She’s one of those child actors who not only plays her role well, but goes above and beyond what it calls for to breathe extra dimensions into her character. There’s this snarl thing she does with her upper lip that would at times feel like over-acting, if she weren’t so obviously fully aware of just when to overdo it and when not to. She’s a terrific young actress who deserves better than Vaughn’s particular brand of exploitation.
There are but a few examples that don’t give away too much of the plot of the movie, but consider this for starters: the first time we see Hit Girl in character, she massacres a roomful of people with a double-ended sword, while spewing language that sounds like… well, me, I guess. That’s fine with me, but here’s where Kick-Ass tries too hard: the soundtrack during this scene blares “Banana Splits” by The Dickies (this song), which sounds like the theme song to a bad Saturday morning cartoon. It’s not enough that there’s an 11-year-old girl who swears a lot and brutally slaughters bad guys; the movie has to go over the top and give her an antithetically girlie song to do it to.
At least Vaughn and Co. are kind enough to pull out such tricks right off the bat, so you know what you’re in for. They continue throughout the film, but you become desensitized to them pretty quickly. Kick-Ass essentially tells the same jokes over and over again; they start out feeling annoyingly forced, and progress to annoyingly repetitive. And yet, Moretz grows on you, not because of the manner in which her character is portrayed, but despite it. The shock-fest continues throughout the film: there’s a guy exploding in a large microwave (I guess the filmmakers liked Gremlins), a character who is burned alive onscreen, and countless limbs hacked off in vivid detail. The dialogue, too, tries too hard to go overboard; in one particularly irritating instance, a character misuses the word “shat” in a manner that just feels like the screenwriters decided it’d be funnier than “shit” because it’s more attention-getting.
There’re good things about a movie like this, too. It gleefully embraces the most tried-and-true comic book stereotypes and manages to make them fun. Mark Strong’s crime boss is just the right amount of over-the-top, as is Nic Cage’s would-be superhero (I particularly enjoyed his hilariously exaggerated in-costume speech pattern). There’s a cool origin scene that’s told with slightly-animated comic panels, and it achieves just the right balance of economy of story-telling and celebratory love of the medium. (These guys have also seen Kill Bill Vol. 1, and took some good cues from it.) And yet, again, Kick-Ass goes overboard with movie references, too. Paying homage is one thing; having characters repeat, verbatim, some of the most over-quoted lines in movie history is another (both “Say hello to my little friend” and “Wait’ll they get a load of me” are broken out here).
Yet despite all of these annoying instances of Kick-Ass trying way too hard, both to shock and to impress with its knowledge of other films and comics, I found myself having a helluva lot of fun watching it. (In fact, I saw it twice, and enjoyed it more the second time than the first, knowing what to expect in terms of tone ahead of time.) It even tries to have a bit of a message behind all of the violence and the cute little girl with the potty mouth, which I suppose is a good thing for a movie that’s inevitably going to draw kids who are way too young to be watching it. There’s enough here to find enjoyable, though, but only if it’s your style of movie—which, for many, won’t be the case. And the higher your tolerance for—or enjoyment of—its sometimes annoying, often cheesy extravagances, the more fun you’ll have.