Monday, 17 May 2010

Film Review: Kick-Ass

On one hand, you have Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, respectively the writer and director of the pitch-perfect 2007 adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust, reteaming for the first time since that fantastic film. On the other, there's Nicolas Cage, who hasn't been truly memorable in anything since Adaptation, and Mark Millar, the comic-book guru whose rampant egomania has come to overshadow what talent he has, as last evidenced in the Angelina Jolie vehicle Wanted. Suffice it to say, then, that going in, I didn't know what to think of Kick-Ass. I had my expectations for each of its component parts, certainly, but of the whole... nothing.

Aaron Johnson, acclaimed for his star-making role in the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, is Dave Lizewski, an unremarkable high school student who decides to become a super-hero. He has no powers. His only training is that which he performs in front of his bedroom mirror. Dave has no earthly reason to do what he does - which is to say, order some spandex off the internet and take to the streets to right the world's wrongs - except, well, why not? A false start nearly kills him, but Dave isn't discouraged, and soon enough his antics begin to attract attention from all the wrong places. The media go crazy over Kick-Ass, several more camera-shy vigilantes come out of the woodwork to warn Dave that his amateurishness could be the end of him, and a criminal kingpin - a real villain - blames him for the mysterious disappearance of copious quantities of cocaine.


What Kick-Ass does right, it does very, very right. Things kick off brilliantly with an enthusiastic and wonderfully witty opening that ascends in energy and tenacity until the anxious high of Dave's first encounter in his superhero garb with a couple of bullies. They pull a knife; it does not go well. There's real dramatic tension in the juxtaposition of Dave's dweebish dreams and the uncompromising brutality of the world he must realise them in, and that feeling of impending tragedy, of reality biting fanboy fantasy, is among the most remarkable aspects of Kick-Ass.

Sadly, Vaughn and Goldman take their tale in another direction entirely. While Dave is recuperating from his unfortunate run-in, we meet Hit Girl and Big Daddy, a father and daughter team bound together by blood and a shared interest in vengeance against Mark Strong's ruthless mafia man. In a return to the form of his 90s action persona with added quirk, Cage clearly relishes his role, and Chloe Moretz as his pint-sized assistant is a revelation; they make, in fact, for a substantially more charismatic and entertaining pair than Kick-Ass and his eventual sidekick-come-nemesis Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, not playing McLovin' for once), and yet they are characters steeped in utter fantasy, stand-outs in the real world landscape of Kick-Ass for all the wrong reasons: gun-toting, impossibly fast and apparently invincible, they simply do not belong in the same film as Dave's bumbling vigilante.

Ultimately, the most troubling thing about Kick-Ass is not the failure of any of its individual elements - the cast equip themselves very well, the script is sound, the humour hits home more often than not and Vaughn's direction is endlessly stylish and so slick as to the belie the movie's modest budget - but the unevenness of the whole. Tonally, Kick-Ass is a mess, wavering between earnestness and frivolity; bitingly satirical one moment and cartoonishly brutal the next. It hopes to set fantasy against reality, but instead it is either realistic or fantastic - rarely does the twain meet - and in its attempts to have it both ways, it sacrifices the most vital aspects of each in the balancing act.

Kick-Ass is a mess, then, yes, lacking in any semblance of self unless that self is in fact its utter lack thereof, but what a glorious mess it is: fun from end to end, funny too, and certainly more coherent than the Mark Millar comic book it's based on, Vaughn and Goldman's second joint effort falters in terms of its tone but in every other aspect it's a raucous, riotous romp that easily transcends its source material.


  1. Thanks for the in-depth review. I'd skipped this one in the theater but will watch on NetFlix when it's available.

  2. I thought it was a fantastic film - I certainly didn't think it was a tonal mess. I agree that the reality biting fanboy ass aspect was the film's strongest aspect, but I thought Big Daddy and Hit Girl explored the opposite side of the vigilante coin. They had all the power but had abandoned any semblance of a normal life in order to fight a losing battle. One of the elements I most loved about the movie was the one most easily over looked - the BG guy who saw everything and did nothing. Thematically I thought this film was spot on - it simply chose to explore a lot of angles rather than one.