Friday, November 29, 2013

Kick-Ass Review: A Good Bad Film

Kick-Ass is such a mixed, hit-and-miss film that I had a hard time reviewing it. On the negative side, I have a very limited number of compliments to give it. On the positive side, at the very least it drew some strong reactions out of me, which is to its credit. But even there, this created a problem because it left me with a lot of criticism to lay down on a film that is both (a) unimportant (it's not Eraserhead or even The Last Temptation of Christ) and (b) actually does some things very well.

Matthew Vaughn's 2010 super-hero action comedy follows Dave Lizewski. He's a typical teenage student - life sucks, but he's got a few friends, and there's a girl at his high school that he likes, even though he doesn't dare to ask out. Like a lot of young boys, Dave daydreams of being a superhero. But rather than pretend he's Iron Man or Batman, Dave raises the bar, buys his own superhero costume, then goes out to fight crime.

On his first attempt at vigilantism, Dave's beaten badly, then hit by a car, which leaves DL needing surgery and physical rehabilitation. And it's in these scenes that you see the spirit of the movie: the way Kick-Ass's comedy of embarrassment works is by having reality step in and kneecap people... then twist it all around by using incredible absurdity as a chaser.

In this case, the absurdist part comes when poor, stupid Dave looks up at his x-rays and realizes he has metal in his body like Wolverine; also, the damage from his injuries has left him a bit desensitized to pain. So, yes, trying to become a superhero and failing badly at it actually gives Dave the tools he needs to go back onto the streets as Kick Ass, a guy with "actual" super powers.

The rest of the story follows Dave as he deals with the aftermath of his whupping. A lengthy absence from school has created a rumor that Lizewski is gay - one which makes his dream-girl start to give him attention. Dave also uses his newfound resilience to stop an actual criminal - yet someone records the act on their phone and Kick Ass is now an internet sensation. Using this recent fame to hunt down more crime draws Dave into his city's very serious gangland syndicate - as well as two genuinely competent vigilantes.

You should be very impressed by the things that Kick-Ass does well. Those two vigilantes I just mentioned - Big Daddy and Hit-girl - are the best part of the film. The latter character generated some controversy - she's an 11 y/o who viciously rips criminals apart, often while calling them "the hard c-word." I hated the CGI stabbing effects they used in her intro, but she works well enough in an insane comic book world. Big Daddy, however, blew my socks off.

For one thing, it's probably Nicholas Cage's best acting performance in quite some time (though, admittedly, I never saw Bad Lieutenant 2: Port of Call New Orleans). For another, he's an even more brutal character than his sidekick/daughter. In K-A, Cage finally gets to play a superhero on-screen, and it's the sort of "good guy" who makes you cover your mouth in shock. He's basically Batman - if Batman armored himself up so heavily that he could simply ignore bullets, casually shooting people and ripping their throats out like he just snagged the invincibility power-up in a video game.

I cannot quite adequately express my surprise at seeing a merciless walking tank of a man eviscerating criminals as coldly as I crush roaches under my feet. It's a little worse, since the criminals stand as much of a chance against him as roaches do against the soles of my shoes.

Then again, I might also have been won over by the origin story of Big Daddy and Hit-girl. It's shown to the audience in a comic-book drawing format - an effect which is both beautifully-rendered as well as smartly-written and effective. It really is incredible:

Other strong points include Katie, whom Dave is crushing on. Dream girls often don't come off well in most comedies that center on embarrassment, but she's actually a cool love interest. She doesn't put the protagonist through hell for no reason, and it's clear that she's smart and kind, as well as really, really pretty.

Also, I love the fact that it has a well-developed bad guy that you're invested in. Mark Strong's Frank D'Amico is a powerful, motivated scumbag who genuinely has a personality (so many films have bland, lifeless villains). His evil actions make the audience wait and hope for him to be taken down, and it was a smart move to make him a fighter straight out of an old Hong Kong film...

And, for about half of its running time, I liked that the movie made a lot of "different" choices, with a sensibility like the kind of film you would have made if you were 15 and had a movie studio production deal. Even before I started to pick out problems, it never seemed perfect - but it did feel fresh, and there really was enough quality - great cinematography, quality script, smart fight choreography - to deserve the patience of any viewer...

The problem - a problem which ultimately breaks the picture - is its uneven tone. At times, it can make this story feel very forced. The worst part of it, however, is that Kick-Ass violates its own premise in its last third/quarter.

Throughout, Kick-Ass has clearly framed Dave Lizewski as a lovable loser. He's not good with girls, he's not athletic, and he's not especially bright. The boy has heart and he cares about others, and these are his best traits. However, his efforts at becoming a hero are failures - all ill-conceived and inept in execution, and he's lucky to just be alive. If DL tried to pull someone out of a burning building, he'd mess it up and probably get a whole fire company killed in the process.

While I don't especially like "embarrassment comedies," the story is played straight, so the fact that the joke's on Dave actually supplies this film with a premise. It might be "leave crime-fighting to people who are competent," or it might be "sometimes people who want to 'help' are no good at it," or even "hubris can get you and others killed" - but this is still a real idea/thesis. And it is expressed indirectly because Lizewski keeps earnestly trying to make a difference no matter how much he screws up.

So, SPOILER ALERT, the story's entire thrust is undermined when we get to the end and Kick Ass is now actually stopping crimes and righting wrongs. He does it with a competence that he never earned - he was screwing up royally not more than 20 minutes before he becomes suddenly-skilled. And the movie then plays his genuinely-helpful actions with an energetic straightness that makes the ending seem like a pop-music-friendly version of the last 20 minutes of Batman Begins.

It just doesn't work, and - as I stated above - completely contradicts the film's portrayal of this clumsy fool who causes more problems than he solves. It certainly makes no sense that the protagonist should find himself riding a rocket-pack with massive guns attached, wiping out bad guys as if he knew what he's doing.

The way the soundtrack is used certainly doesn't help - toward the end of Kick-Ass, action scenes are accompanied by quick snatches of punk(?) tracks that have too much of a bubblegum-pop sound, and the brevity of their use is almost as annoying as the song selection. It's not bad during Hit-girl's introduction - it plays against the events - but it bothers me because they soon stop fitting the moments in which they are used, much less the film itself.

Please be warned: violence and foul language in this clip.

There's also a scene that features Gnarles Barkley's hyper-popular track, "Crazy." I can understand why that moment made a lot of people in the audience laugh, it doesn't work for me. Even if I hadn't grown tired of "Crazy" long-before, it takes up more time than it should. And I really had no desire to see two juvenile dips--ts listen to the track and have a dance-off while seated in a car. Ugh.

Kick-Ass had many nice elements, but it starts off as a novel anti-wish-fulfillment fantasy, then betrays itself - and the intelligent viewer - by turning into its exact opposite. Honestly, pure wish fulfillment movies never really do it for me. What's worse, it started to remind me of another film based on a Mark Millar comic that I disliked even more than I disliked K-A: 2008's Wanted. Please believe me when I say that I don't ever wanted to be reminded of that film, ever again.


  1. Kick Ass I enjoyed immensely and I get your point about the last part of the movie but if you think about it, Dave is really following Hit-Girl's lead throughout that sequence. Yes, he does put in some important good moves there but the biggest showdown is between Hit Girl and D"Amico(Mark Strong is awesome, he's done several films in England,including Mr. Knightley in a BBC version of Jane Austen's Emma and he's doing an AMC series at the moment).

    I haven't seen the sequel yet but plan on doing so when it hits Netflix. Even tho Jim Carrey mouthed off about the film's violence(which I find to be BS as he did take a paycheck for it and I didn't hear anything about him giving the money back or donating it to a worthy cause), I still want to see his performance but it's all about Hit Girl for me:)

    1. Thanks! It is true that the ending is really about Hit-girl. I just can't pretend she's the lead - I wish I could! It would be much better!

      I hope you like the sequel. Honestly, I can't blame Jim for saying what he did. I don't even have to take a stand on the issue itself...

      He has a right to, although for everyone's sake. he should've focused on having a crisis of conscience about this and not blaming it on that particular film. We've had so much ultra-violent death of late...

  2. Nice review. Particularly agreed about the tonal shifts in the third act, which are a "have your cake and eat it, too" problem.

    SPOILERS You're completely right: when Dave gets a jetpack with gatling guns attached to it, we've gone from the semi-realistic premise of "what if people really tried dressing up as super heroes?" to a fantasy that undercuts everything that's gone before. Not only does he gain access to technology that essentially grants him quick 'n' easy superpowers, he's able to use it to deadly effect with what seems like 15 minutes' worth of lead time.

    The movie makes the point that it took years of indoctrination, training, and systematic abuse by her father to turn Hit Girl into a remorseless killer. That's supposed to be the difference between Hit Girl and Big Daddy and wannabes like Kick Ass and Red Mist. Instead, turns out that all it takes to make Dave a murderer is access to the right weapons.

    The dissonant cherry on top is that during the climactic battle, after Dave has flown in and mowed down the bad guy's thugs with the gatling guns, the movie takes him back into nyuck-nyuck incompetent mode, for a comedic fight with Red Mist that's juxtaposed with the deadly serious showdown between Hit Girl and Mark Strong's character. That kinda broke the picture for me, despite all the action in the climax being really well choreographed.


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