Sunday, April 18, 2010

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Kick-Ass Really, Truly Does

Man, I really loved Kick-Ass. Just got out of the theater about an hour ago, and I just had to talk abotu as soon as possible. There's just so much to discuss!

First, of course, is the tone. If any movie "gets" the shades of grey of the superhero genre, it's Kick-Ass. Truly. I know the new Batman movies do this spectacularly as well - and count me as someone who wished The Dark Knight had a Best Picture nom - but they insist on being Debbie Downers. Kick-Ass presents the moral quandary without actually pointing out the disconnect and challenging its audience to have a great fucking time as it does so. I like this, because it's there if you look for it, but it's not shoving it into your face.

Take Hit Girl and Big Daddy, for example. They're borderline sociopaths. Only once is the seriousness of their situation brought up, when Big Daddy's old friend Marcus tells him that the girl is being brainwashed and robbed of a childhood. And then it's never spoken of again. Hit Girl continues to kill and maim bad guys, but they're bad guys. No one in the theater was watching this and only thinking, "AWESOME!" They were rooting for her, sure, but everyone knew it was fucked up. And that's what's amazing about this movie. You're having a good time, rooting for this little girl to sadistically rip people open with a butterfly knife, but all the while there's a realization that this should not be. It's not an immoral film because it wants you to enjoy this, it's a genius film that better demonstrates the fine line between vigilante and psychopath.

The hero himself, Kick-Ass, is a shallow geek. He's an awful fighter, a non-hero, a naive teenager doing what he thinks is noble, but he's not doing anything besides dressing up in a costume. Fantastic! The romance between him and high-school hottie Katie is never seen as anything more than hormones. They think it's something more, real love and a romance, but that's high school. You think you're in Wuthering Heights just because you want to fuck some girl. There's no great love story or noble rescue like the Spider-Man films. This is a kid wanting to be cool, getting in way over his head, and having to be saved by a psychotic father-daughter team who are vigilantes to pursue a personal vendetta. To have the hero of your movie not be a hero at all is a fantastic idea. It's the real Everyman having to become a hero without the benefit of a trust fund or a radioactive spider!

And yes, they do eventually cross over into becoming a real superhero movie, but that's a greatly earned beat. Hit Girl has always been deadly serious - I mean, if anyone is going to take this to heart, wouldn't it be a child? But Kick-Ass really just plays dress-up and actually has to become the fantasy. He learns that it's more than just posturing and internet celebrity. There are actual stakes here, and real heroes are needed, and he has to put up or shut up, and another phrase about lessons learned! My roommate calls it  Don Quixote story, and indeed, it does remind me of Man of La Mancha. Don Quixote is a madman, but he still saves Aldonza from the muleteers. And, much like Man of La Mancha, Kick-Ass is simultaneously a deconstruction and celebration of the superhero genre.

Kudos to co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn, then, who manages to balance this tone and earn the final pay-off. Co-writer Jane Goldman also worked with Vaughn on Stardust, another film that took a genre (fantasy), played with the conventions, and managed to be both amusing and genuine. Mark Strong helps, of course, having played villains in both films. Strong is slowly becoming one of my favorite contemporary actors. He's always spot on, whether playing a murderous prince, a murderous aristocrat, or a murderous mob boss. Oh, sure, he's always murderous, but he always changes the approach to each character. Here, he gives what is probably the strongest performance I have seen from him. Funny without compromising the ruthlessness, Strong's villainous Frank D'Amico is a force to be reckoned with.

Then, of course, there are the leads: Aaron Johnson as Kick-Ass, Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit Girl, Nicolas Cage as Big Daddy and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Red Mist. Mintz-Plasse is great, a far cry from McLovin. Moretz is frighteningly committed to the role of the innocent killer, all pig tails and swords. Johnson is likable, geeky and cute, and it's hard to imagine anyone else really taking on the role and nailing it as well as he does. Nicolas Cage is just pure awesome. His Big Daddy is clearly a screwloose, taking a strange "Father Knows Best" tone when teaching his daughter how to fight, then uses the speech style of Adam West's Batman when he's in costume. It's a quietly deranged performance, and all the more remarkable for the way it reminds us that Cage really is a solid actor when he sets his mind to it.

The film credits four composers, but I honestly don't know what part of the music is original. I hear there's a "Kick-Ass Theme", but I don't remember it. The track "Surface of the Sun" from Sunshine is used to great effect twice, the Banana Splits theme is featured in a surprisingly bloody action sequence, some Morricone is sprinkled in, and both Big Daddy and Frank D'Amico listen to the same classical music (another parallel? another blurring of the lines? these things aren't accidents!). There is an original song performed by Mika that plays over the credits. So that's cool.

Oh my God, and cinematographer Ben Davis? Oh my God oh my God oh my God the work here is incredible. One of my absolute favorite shots of EVARR has to be the one of Mark Strong watching a building burn. It's just him and the glow of the flames illuminating his face, and it is incredible. Ben Davis, holy crap, I rarely talk up the cinematographers (though I should, really) but you, sir, are one for the ages.

I can't imagine not enjoying Kick-Ass. I really can't. It's greatly-paced, finely acted, and is oh so much more than violence for violence's sake. There's a real story with real character arcs that feel natural and are fairly earned. Go for it. Do.

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