Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kick-Ass: Quite a kick!

Kick-Ass (2010) • View trailer for Kick-Ass
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for sexual candor, relentless profanity, violence and gore, much involving a young child
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.22.10
Buy DVD: Kick-Ass • Buy Blu-Ray: Kick-Ass (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

OK, pop-culture junkies of all ages: Send your parents out of the room for awhile, 'cause they will not like what I have to say about this film.

Kick-Ass is yet further proof that polite society  the civilized world as we know it  is going straight to hell.
Having been tracked back to his lair -- ah, his bedroom -- by the mysterious
Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, right), the
mostly uncostumed Dave (Aaron Johnson) is warned of the necessity to get a
bit smarter, before tackling some real villains. The result of this unusual pep
talk is certain to involve lots of blood, severed limbs and socially
unacceptable carnage ... and isn't that why you're buying a ticket in the
first place?

And I'm hanging on for dear life, enjoying every moment of the explosive ride.

In a word, this flick rocks.

Avid comic book fans need no introduction to this series by co-creators Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., which raised eyebrows as it took the industry by storm in 2008. Even in a medium known for shocking excess, this book's breathtaking blend of teenage angst and hyper-violence became legendary almost overnight.

Nobody could have expected  heck, nobody could have imagined  that such electrifying sensibilities would remain intact during a transition to the big screen. Several other equally popular graphic novels have made the jump before, with mixed results; even devoted admirers will acknowledge that (for example) the film adaptations of V for Vendetta and Watchmen are flawed.

Not so with Kick-Ass.

Director/co-producer/co-scripter Matthew Vaughn deserves a great deal of credit for his impressively faithful rendition of this splatter masterpiece. It's not merely a matter  with co-scripter Jane Goldman  of reproducing much of Millar's dialogue verbatim; Vaughn and production designer Russell De Rozario made their film look like much of Romita's comic book art. Memorable single panels are reproduced perfectly, as is the overall tone of this universe so much like ours.

That helps the palatability factor; it's a bit easier to find the gallows humor in a visual palette dominated by bright primary colors ... which you expect from a story involving folks in glitzy costumes.

Goodness, the film even kicks off with the comic's same prologue, which results in a rather unexpected outcome for "some Armenian guy with a history of mental problems." And with an opener like that, we know the rest of the film is in good hands.

But while it's true the comic book cognoscente won't be surprised by anything this film adaptation has in store, even they'll be stunned by Vaughn's secret weapon: young Chloe Grace Moretz, who would have been all of 12 when she made this film. Her performance here as Mindy Macready is the stuff of legend: the sort of breakout role destined to make her a summer-long media darling ... and poster child for family-values types wondering what her parents have been smoking.

I knew this girl was special last year, after catching her memorable performance as Joseph Gordon-Levitt's wonderfully wise younger sister in (500) Days of Summer. In a bent effervescent romance highlighted by plenty of clever touches, Moretz was one of the standouts: a preternaturally calm and serious little girl who seemed to be 11 going on 35, with the savvy and street-smarts we'd expect from the older end of that equation.

What older sibling wouldn't have sought her counsel?

Moretz is every bit as jarringly out-of-synch here, which is precisely the way Millar designed Mindy's character. She's a little girl robbed of her childhood  not that she minds  who willingly embraces the, ah, unconventional lifestyle orches-trated by her devoted father, a single parent with very serious issues plaguing his psyche.

But that's getting ahead of things.

The story begins with a beguiling and quite reasonable premise: In a world laden with comic book superheroes, why hasn't somebody tried it for real?

Granted, we can't all be mutants (the X-Men), Amazonian goddesses (Wonder Woman) or come from the planet Krypton (Superman), but what about the well-trained and financed "amateurs," such as Batman or Daredevil? In Millar's prose, from the first page of the first issue of Kick-Ass, with all these comic book movies and TV shows, "'d think at least one eccentric loner would have stitched himself a costume."

Meet Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson, appropriately nerdy), an eternally put-upon high school kid forever bullied for his lunch money and ignored by the adorable hotties who prowl the campus hallways. He and two similarly dweebie friends spend all their time at the local comic book shop  which, in a marketing move that I wish somebody would emulate in real life, doubles as a coffee shop  having the sorts of profane conversations that all disenfranchised guys enjoy.

Dave suffers from an overdeveloped sense of life's unfairness, and he decides to do something about it. One computer-ordered green-and-yellow diving suit later, armed with nothing but giddy confidence, he hits the streets  in broad daylight  and challenges the two thugs who recently robbed him. And gets very seriously hurt.

Getting smacked by a speeding car just adds insult to the injury.

Months later, stitched back together with metal rods and pins and God knows what else, Dave is back at school ... and, to his own amazement, back on the street in a fresh outfit. Still lacking any fighting skills, but better able to withstand punishment because of his surgically enhanced innards, Dave  having dubbed himself Kick-Ass  tries another intervention "for justice."

The results are similarly painful, but somewhat better in one sense; his one-sided fight with an even bigger collection of thugs goes viral when several kids in a nearby diner record the moment for posterity.


Soft-spoken, unassuming Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage, clearly having the time of his life) has spent years training his only child, Mindy, in the fine arts of knife-throwing and yakuza-style sword work. The kid's a natural. The well-financed Damon is living the mantra that vengeance is a dish best served cold; his scheme for retribution, focused but thus far not quite solidified, gets a jolt when he and Mindy see the online video of Kick-Ass, well, getting his ass kicked.

Not too much later, as Dave tries to do a dangerous favor for Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), the girl he adores from afar, it goes awry. It looks like curtains for the city's lone costumed vigilante, when the tables suddenly are turned by the arrival of a purple-haired little dynamo calling herself Hit-Girl.

What she does to Dave's opponents will get her a part in Quentin Tarantino's next flashback chapter of his 'Kill Bill' saga. No movie samurai flick ever spilled blood  or severed limbs  with so much panache.

Nor is she alone; her movements are shadowed by another costumed player: a rifle-wielding crack shot who calls himself Big Daddy.

(I know all this sounds insane, but you gotta believe me; it plays perfectly in context.)

Hugs and kisses all around. But not really. Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, with a genuine mission is mind, regard Kick-Ass as something of a distraction. After all, he's just a loser in colorful tights.

Trouble is, the now dead goons belonged to crimelord Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), who's not the slightest bit pleased by this display of civilian do-gooderie. Others might imitate the likes of Kick-Ass, and then where would crooks be? Desperate times call for desperate measures, and for once D'Amico has to admit that his generally useless son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), has a clever scheme.

Cue the arrival of yet another costumed figure: a spike-haired avenger dubbed Red Mist, who suddenly wants to be Kick-Ass' new best friend.

Vaughn and Goldman's most visible contribution to this material is their better-shaded depiction of Chris. In the comic book, D'Amico's son is just as purely evil as his old man: a teen Tony Soprano itching for the opportunity to get his hands bloody.

Mintz-Plasse makes Chris a much more complex figure: a lonely and overly sheltered kid who, in street clothes, probably could join the little clique inhabited by Dave and his two friends. If his thug handlers would permit such fraternization.

The resulting dynamic between Kick-Ass and Red Mist is much more interesting, particularly as this eye-popping story builds to its third act.

Just in case any tenderhearted adults sneaked back into the room, take note: This is seriously deranged and violent territory. Think Tarantino on speed, spiced with a bravura performance from Moretz, already blessed with the best sneer in Hollywood. Carnage is rarely this gleeful, and it works because of the snarky tone and oh-so-achingly familiar underdog angst of Johnson's downtrodden teen.

We all want to be heroes, if only in our own minds; trouble is, real life has a habit of decapitating any blade of grass foolish enough to stand out from the crowd.

Vaughn's unapologetically savage film will fuel debates and divide audiences much the way Pulp Fiction and Bad Santa alternately delighted and horrified viewers. There ain't no middle ground here, and my only concern is the degree to which this flick is destined to be imitated ... by late-comers who won't come close to getting the recipe right.

Vaughn knows his stuff, though: a bit ironic, given that he's a British director toiling in the culturally ritualized universe of American-style comic books. Still, we shouldn't be all that surprised; Vaughn demonstrated his chops with 2004's Layer Cake, a brutally violent crime drama that brought future 007 Daniel Craig to the world's attention.

Vaughn additionally helmed  also with Goldman as co-scripter  2007's under-appreciated big-screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust. The guy clearly understands the requirements of genre atmosphere.

And now we have this cheerfully perverse roller coaster ride.

Granted, Iron Man 2 is right around the corner, but seriously: Tony Stark's got a helluva fight on his hands, if he expects to wrest 2010 pop-culture dominance from this film any time soon. Kick-Ass is the sort of instant genre hit that fans will watch two, three, 15 and 37 times ... and that's where the money is made these days.

Sequel, anybody?

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