Kids with Guns: Kick-Ass

April 7, 2010

I’m sure I’ve talked about the importance of tone in films before, and before I go back to that old standby when talking about Matthew Vaughn’s comic book fantasy Kick-Ass, I think it worth stressing how crucial it is (for the thousandth time). In most films, suspension of disbelief is paramount for engaging with the characters and story. This is not to say that everything need be believable or even logical, but if you want to be swept up in whatever experience the film can offer, the wrong moment can jar you right out of the picture. A consistent tone does well to maintain the suspension of disbelief in genre films such as Kick-Ass because, after all, nobody wants to find themselves aware of the real world when they’re meant to be escaping from it. As a digression, a good director making a certain film knows when to use a moment totally at odds with everything else around it to emphasize a point and, hopefully, get an emotional reaction (Richie’s attempted suicide in The Royal Tenenabaum, for instance). I’m not saying Matthew Vaughn is forever incapable of accomplishing this, but Kick-Ass is most certainly not that film.

Kick-Ass is desperate to set itself apart from other superhero movies. It gives winks and nods and outright quotes from its predecessors, specifically the first Spider-man, from which we not only get the twist on the ‘great responsibility’ line, we also get the opening narration, the visual representation of the high school, the early training sequences, and seemingly even the neighbourhood where Peter Parker lived. This isn’t in and of itself a bad idea, but the execution is lacking, particularly in the opening narration. Where in Spider-man we get a heightened but believably geeky and sympathetic Parker, here we just get a knowing, horny loser, more Superbad than superhero. In fact, the entire high school element of Kick-Ass is even more sub-par than a side plot should be expected to be, surrounding the ‘hero’ Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) as it does with one-dimensional cliches of The Nerdy Best Friends, The Desirable Popular Girl and so on, as well as resorting to improbable romantic turns and a string of gay jokes (yes, amidst all the mayhem, Dave has to act like a gay best friend to feel up the girl).

Meanwhile (and that comic-book font title does come up), in another movie, we have Nicolas Cage as Big Daddy and Chloe Moretz as his 11 year old daughter Hit-Girl, reeking violent revenge on a major city drug kingpin (Mark Strong, showing considerably less understanding of his role than he did in Sherlock Holmes) and his many, idiot goons. These are the two worlds that will collide to form the brunt of the plot, and I’ll be damned if either one is particularly engaging on its own merits. If the purpose of the film is to be edgy and funny and subvert the genre, stock characters and cliché stories are fine, but the wit never really materialises. Kick-Ass is never more than the sum of its parts, and those parts don’t fit together and aren’t very interesting anyway, you’ve got a real problem.

It is not a total waste of time, however, and there are some good scenes, but when those scenes come along they eventually just highlight the flaws of not only the low points, but usually the other good scenes as well. The twist on the superhero story is that Dave is an average, geeky guy who just puts on a costume and tries to save people. He has no powers or real training, and when he gets into his first fight, he is brutally stabbed and then hit by a car. It’s a gut-punch of a moment, and Vaughn does everything he can to emphasize the serious physicality of the injury, letting it serve as a wake-up call to the delusional teenager who thinks he can do what a comic book creation can. This sets us in a reality not far from our own, where we’ve accepted that your average guy will fall to the larger enemy who wields a knife. When he tries again, he gets into a clumsy fight against three men that is harsh and uncoordinated, again emphasizing a physical reality not far from our own, and though he wins it, he does so in a manner in keeping with the internal logic of the world we’ve so far been presented with. Things change dramatically when Hit-Girl and Big Daddy turn up, all suave, superhuman fighting techniques and gadgets and sniping. The blood and viscera flow freely, limbs fly, and all of a sudden the impact of the stabbing and the clumsy fighting earlier is dulled. Big Daddy guns his way through a warehouse of henchman with choreographed accuracy, and Hit-Girl can manipulate ropes and knives with stunning precision, not to mention change clips mid-air. The internal logic of the world changes, and now there doesn’t seem much point in following Kick-Ass at all, because once the brain-splattering dance of violence begins, I don’t much care about some teenager trying to get laid.

There are some good things, here, notably Nicolas Cage attempting to disguise his voice with a haltering cadence as well as the few moments where he allows himself to seem like the psychotic monster he really is. That latter point is actually raised by his ex-partner Marcus (Omari Hardwick), and it hangs there as an interesting avenue worth exploring but never to be followed through. Moretz also does well given the slightly trickier task than it might first seem as being a foul-mouthed, homicidal little girl. Having an eleven year old swear profusely can easily turn into trying too hard to be irreverent and edgy, and while it does feel that way at times she pulls off the only real bad-ass lines in the whole movie.

The characters mostly fail to raise interest, the comedy is usually cheap and forced, and while the actions scenes are mostly pretty good (a rescue with a strobing light is particularly effective), they make everything else seem rather dull and stale. Starting out about a high-schooler trying out to live out his geek fantasy, the film eventually succumbs and becomes that geek fantasy, and thus becomes just as conventional as the genre predecessors it wants to send up.  I don’t have a problem with that in general, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too.  When there are stakes and consequences introduced, it feels dishonest to take out those stakes and end with essentially no consequences at all. As it stands, a violent action movie about Big Daddy and Hit-Girl is far more intriguing than a poor comedy about an annoying teenager. Kick-Ass might have been quite fun if it weren’t for, well, Kick-Ass.

-M

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