Note: This review is of a version of the film seen at Butt-Numb-A-Thon. It contained some temp music, made up largely of recognizable cues from other superhero films, and was not color corrected or properly sound mixed. The actual cut itself was the final cut, which has been given an R by the MPAA. Which I can barely believe.
Holy fucking shit.
Can that just be my Rotten Tomatoes quote for Kick-Ass? Honestly, I think ‘Holy fucking shit’ probably sums this movie up better than the rest of this review will manage to do. I’m going to throw around a lot of words here, but they’re all going to simply boil down to ‘Holy fucking shit.’
I’ve been thinking about what makes Kick-Ass the single best Western action film I’ve seen in maybe a decade and it all comes down to director Matthew Vaughn’s impeccable sense of pacing. Too many crazy action films these days run out of steam by about the halfway mark; you get the best stuff in the first two acts and then act three turns into a slog of tying up story ends and wrapping up character arcs that were stunted beforehand. Vaughn doesn’t just keep the pace up throughout the entire film, he keeps building the pace so that the final action scenes are the biggest, craziest and most fun.
Based on a comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr, Kick-Ass begins as a look at what it would be like if a regular person put on a superhero costume and started fighting crime. The initial answer: a quick trip to the hospital followed by six months of recovery, a skeletal system largely supported by bolts and metal beams and massive nerve damage. But while the film (and I guess the comic – I never made it past the first issue) may start grounded in some kind of realism it keeps getting bigger and more insane. And more violent. So much more violent.
The basic story: Dave is a comic book nerd who wonders why, in all the years of comic books and comic book movies, no one has ever simply donned a costume and taken to the streets to defend the public. He decides to do just that and becomes Kick-Ass, a green-clad avenger wielding a pair of nunchucks whose first encounter with the criminal underworld leads to massive, massive hospital bills. But when Dave gets out of the hospital and is finally rested up he doesn’t do the smart thing and put away the mask. No, armed with nerve damage that deadens his sensations of pain, Dave goes back out. When a phonecam captures Kick-Ass battling a group of thugs the hero becomes a YouTube sensation.
It also turns out that Kick-Ass isn’t the only hero in town. While he’s keeping a high profile – 16,000 MySpace friends! – Big Daddy and Hit Girl are just urban legends among the criminal underground. Decked out in a black suit that’s one part Batman, one part Midnighter and one part Phantom of the Paradise, Big Daddy has brought his ten year old daughter into the front lines of crime and taught her to be a flat out murderer. Nic Cage continues his comeback with this role, bringing a sweetly weird family man vibe to Big Daddy out of costume (even when he’s shooting his ten year old daughter in the chest to help her get over her natural fear of taking a bullet) and a delightful Adam West as Batman cadence when in costume. He’s flat out amazing.
You know how Inglorious Basterd‘s Hans Landa is in many ways the coolest, best character of 2009? That’s what Hit Girl is to 2010. Played by Chloe Moretz (soon to be playing the vampire role in the Let The Right One In remake), Hit Girl is as iconic as they come. A tiny bundle of death, Hit Girl is decked out in a purple wig and an arsenal of guns and blades; her mouth is as filthy as her moves are deadly and her attitude is is that of a cold-blooded killer twice her age. She’s not just the most bad-ass character in the film, she’s one of the most bad-ass characters to ever hit films. Hit Girl is going to be a fucking phenomenon – expect dozens of Hit Girl costumes at next year’s Comic Con. Expect a hundred .gif memes to pop up on the internet. Expect this character to hit like a baseball bat to your face.
The film does a good job of managing Hit Girl. It’s Kick-Ass’ story, so the movie’s about him, but Vaughn gives us plenty of Hit Girl without ever quite overstaying her welcome – consider it the opposite of what they’ve done with Wolverine in the X-Men movies. What helps is that Kick-Ass is a legitimately interesting character – sort of the modern day version of Peter Parker, minus powers – and that actor Aaron Johnson (who plays John Lennon in the new film Nowhere Boy) brings the goods in his performance. Dave’s a geek but there has to be something deeper than just hero worship to get him into a costume and take so many beatings; while Johnson and the script don’t dwell on it, it’s there in him, a sort of a weird kink or something that he doesn’t quite understand. It’s no accident that we’re introduced to Dave as he masturbates and that Kick-Ass totally changes his sex life. This is ground that Alan Moore covered in Watchmen but from the POV of the fictional character; here the POV is the comic fan and how they sexually relate to this weird fetish world of heroes and villains in skin tight outfits.
Speaking of villains, there’s one other costumed character – the Red Mist. Played by McLovin himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Red Mist is sort of the evil version of Kick-Ass (which is essentially the perfect supervillain trope anyway), a comic book nerd whose dad just happens to be the biggest crime boss in the city. Decked out in pleather and driving a souped up Mustang (that actually shoots mist!), Red Mist is torn between admiring Kick-Ass for living the comic book dream and wanting to please his father. Red Mist wants in on the family business, but let’s face it – he’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Would you want him as the heir to your criminal empire? Mintz-Plasse finally gets a chance to prove that he’s more than McLovin, and I think the Red Mist could be just as iconic a character for him as his Superbad doofus. Mark Strong plays Red Mist’s dad, a goombah who finds his criminal empire under attack from some retards in Halloween costumes. Spoilers, I guess: I hope that when Strong passes away (many years in the future) the scene where he repeatedly punches Hit Girl in the face is used in the Oscar Death Montage.
Rounding out the other main players are Clark Duke as Dave’s equally nerdy but twice as sarcastic friend and serious hottie Lyndsy Fonseca as Katie, the girl Dave loves so much he’ll pretend to be gay just to hang around with her. It’s these last two who really give Kick-Ass its secret greatness – the film isn’t the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s one of the best teen comedies in years, and Vaughn and co-scripter Jane Goldman embrace that side of the story just as much as the action and violence. Kick-Ass is really funny, and it’s actually kind of sweet at times as well; Vaughn and Goldman value the human relationships just as much as the fighting. In fact, the relationship between Hit Girl and Big Daddy is touching and funny and… well, this is weird to admit about a movie called Kick-Ass, but very emotional at times. Putting these characters into bloody battles is one thing, but making us care about what happens to them is where the movie enters the territory of greatness.
About the action: Kick-Ass is the most irresponsible movie I’ve seen in years. The film flirts with Looney Tunes violence but always comes down squarely on the side of bone cracking, blood spewing, limb hacking reality. And all of that violence – every bit of it – is either visited upon or inflicted by children. It’s amazing. And double amazing is that the film never takes a moment to consider the morality of it all, at least not textually. I think that the movie has some deeper thoughts bubbling under the surface, and in many way it’s a parody of the idea that violence in media is harmful to kids. After all, it’s violent comics and movies that spur Dave to become Kick-Ass (and get his ass kicked again and again) and during an amazing shoot out scene we see the action from Hit Girl’s POV presented as a HUD from a first person shooter game. The joke here is taking the ‘violence in media breeds violence in reality’ cry to an absurd length.
The film’s action, beyond being well-paced throughout, is also diverse. Each set piece feels like its own thing, and they range from brawls to shoot outs. Locations, enemies, styles, all change up between each set piece, keeping the film’s action from ever feeling samey. I think Kick-Ass‘ low budget helped in this regard – rather than fall back on boring CG spectacle, Vaughn has to craft each sequence and get the most out of it. Yeah, computers can show me all kinds of mind-blowing stuff (and there is some CG in the film), but it will never beat the visceral thrill of watching two people go at it in a well-choreographed, well-edited fist or gunfight. Vaughn’s long-time editor Jon Harris (working with Eddie Hamilton) creates electricity in these scenes, especially in the moments leading up to the actual fights. The tension builds up to an amazing degree, leading to an action catharsis that has the audience cheering and on their feet.
The action scenes in Kick-Ass become almost participatory. They’re completely adrenaline fueled blasts, the kinds of fights that make entire audiences cry ‘Ouch!’ in concert. Limbs are hewed, necks are broken and bodies are filled with lead, and blood is spattered. Action scenes with this kind of energy come along rarely these days, and when they do they’re usually barely coherent messes that are fun but carry no weight. Vaughn proves to be a master at staging action scenes, keeping geography and character in mind at all times, never staging something for the sake of showing something cool but always managing to get something cool in. Watching Kick-Ass it all looks so simple, but I imagine this stuff is incredibly hard or more movies would be creating even half the excitement that Kick-Ass does in its smallest action scenes.
I know there must be flaws in Kick-Ass. Maybe when the final score is put over the film it won’t have quite the propulsive quality that this temp track gave it. Maybe a second viewing will reveal some cracks in the veneer. All I know is that the moment the film ended I wanted to see it again. It took me a couple of minutes to really get into the movie, but once I was in I was completely sold. Kick-Ass ends with the possibility of more adventures, and I want to see them all. I want to return to this hyper-violent, awesome world and get lost in laughs and sympathetic pain again. Kick-Ass is a movie that will have you on your feet, cheering your fucking guts out.
10 out of 10