REVIEW: Kick-Ass

Rating: 1½ stars (out of 4)

Kick-Ass (2010): Dir. Matthew Vaughn. Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn.  Based upon the graphic novel by Mark Millar.  Starring: Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Mark Strong. Running time: 117 minutes.

KICKASSKick-Ass looks like it wanted to be a revisionist superhero film, in the mode of Watchmen or Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.  Revisionist works, however, require insight into the genre from which they spring.  Realizing it had none, the film chickened out, devolving into a traditional (albeit gorier) comic book movie.  Well okay, fine, I can live with that.  But the film’s tone jumps around so confusedly, it’s difficult to even enjoy what it does right.

Our film follows Dave Lizewski, played by Aaron Johnson, a high school everyman (dork) who lacks direction in his life, and whose only ambition involves donning green pajamas and fighting crime.  Not surprisingly, his first attempts nearly take his life, but he returns to the game in order to impress a long-time crush.  Johnson is convincing and likeable in the role, even as his character constantly ignores basic survival instincts.

But the film has a problem when it introduces Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), two costumed vigilantes who seem to have a much better handle on the whole “superhero” act.  They are a father-daughter team hell-bent on taking down gangster Frank D’Amico, no matter what the cost.

Nicolas Cage, plays, well, Nicolas Cage.  I hope you weren’t expecting anyone else.  As the costumed vigilante Big Daddy he attempts the groan-inducing delivery of Adam West in the 1960’s Batman television series.  In practice, the delivery is more akin to that of William Shatner.

Much attention has been focused on the character of Hit-Girl, what with her flagrant profanity and penchant for dismemberment.  But the character is barely a cinematic game-changer—the film never explores issues of lost innocence, or anything that would actually invest us in the character.  Hit-Girl never goes beyond the gimmick that she is.

The film tries to employ the same foul-mouthed, whip-smart teenage dialogue style which has seen countless imitators since the success of Superbad in 2007.  However, Superbad, in addition to being foul-mouthed, possessed a heavy dose of wit to go along with its profanities, including jokes referencing Orson Welles and the Coen Brothers.  Kick-Ass lacks the same smarts; instead, it treats the f-word as funny in and of itself.  Maybe that’s par for the course in today’s R-rated comedies.  I certainly hope not.

The film’s quest for edginess features even more prominently in violent content.  I’m usually okay with over-the-top blood and gore in films like 300 or Kill Bill.  This film, however, revels in its violence with a disturbingly sadistic glee.  Let’s take a look at one scene in which Big Daddy and Hit-Girl dispatch one of Frank D’Amico’s henchmen.  His car has been wedged in the vise of a car compactor, and he is handcuffed to the steering wheel.  The two crime fighters engage the machine, and the henchman screams and pleads for his life before being crushed in a mess of metal and body fluids.  All the while, we hear an obviously incongruous violin piece on the film’s soundtrack.

I ask you, reader, how does one react to this?  Is this entertaining?  And the film insists on similar scenes early on in the film, so by the time we get to the slam-bang action sequences, we almost welcome the reprieve.

Later, we are treated to a drawn-out torture sequence, which is neither funny nor enjoyable.  What’s more, it removes us from the stylized violence which makes up the rest of the film.  Over and over, again and again, Vaughn shows us two characters beaten and bludgeoned by knuckle dusters and baseball bats.  One wonders if there was an endorsement deal with Louisville Slugger.

The film can’t decide which world it wants to inhabit.  We don’t know what we’re supposed to take seriously or what we can dismiss as pure aesthetic.  In one of many voiceovers, Dave remarks, “In the world I lived in, heroes only existed in comic books. And I guess that’d be okay, if bad guys were make-believe too, but they’re not.”  Yet the movie gives us villains who define fictional stereotypes—crime boss Frank D’Amico harbors fanatical obsessions with eliminating costumed vigilantes, and his henchmen talk as if they just arrived from a failed Sopranos audition.

Let’s not forget Big Daddy or Hit Girl—Vaughn shoots their action sequences with such quick edits and zooms that we might as well be watching a comic book play out.  Even our hapless protagonist saves the day in typical comic book fashion, as he learns how to use complex weaponry within five minutes, and fires a bazooka from the hip.

Ultimately, Kick-Ass fails to capitalize on an interesting premise, believing that violence and profanity somehow elevate it beyond other films of the genre.  While it’s good to see a film trying to expand beyond the family-friendly films that studios are churning out these days, Kick-Ass lacks any cleverness or insight to improve upon the standard formula.  We get a shallow superhero film with an above-average bloodlust.