Good Memories of 2010, Day 7: Kick-Ass

I loved the movie Kick-Ass.

What, you didn’t? That’s fine. Hear me out.

I’ll be the first to admit that it sets up a scenario as its foundation that it ultimately blithely abandons, the whole “what would it be like if someone tried, in real life, to be a costumed superhero?” thing. As an exploration of that theme, it’s mostly a failure, though it does sort of tell us that if someone did that they’d get the shit beat out of them a lot and possibly die. Which may be all we need to know.

By giving us those answers early in the film, though, it does add to the vulnerability of its hero, Dave Lizewski aka Kick-Ass, and we never doubt that he is all too mortal. The old rule in writing is “Mistreat your protagonist,” and Dave really gets his share.

In a review at Comic Book Resources, comic writer Steven Grant made some interesting commentary on the movie’s thematic shift:

[Kick-Ass] cheats right and left on its premise. Once donning his goofy costume, a mish-mash of scuba gear and ski mask, Kick-Ass quickly demonstrates why people are generally disinclined to wear costumes and fight crime in the real world. Once that point is made, though, the intro premise is thrown away so quickly it’s like watching a stage magician make a prop vanish, and to the same effect: it draws the audience further into the show…

If the film cheats on practically every level, that’s why it works. That’s where much of the humor comes from…When characters try to anticipate how “real world” superheroes will or should act, they resort to their only frame of reference – comic books – despite no natural law requiring people to behave like comic book characters when they put on comic book costumes. But we say “but of course” because it’s also our only frame of reference and in the logic of the film it makes sense: if you’re trying to emulate comic book characters, you emulate comic book characters, and when the film finally makes the notion explicit we’re already so deep into the magician’s act that our instinct is to play along.

Kick-Ass is both one of the best and purest superhero films yet and mostly not a superhero movie at all.

It has all the tropes of the superhero story, and the director layers and spices it from beginning to end with bits of homage ranging from scenes echoing earlier superhero classics (like Dave’s hilarious version of Tobey Maguire’s first leap of faith from Spider-Man) to musical flourishes calling back to John Williams’s Superman score. We even get Nick Cage’s very funny riff on Adam West. All this stuff is so nicely integrated that it’s lovingly obvious to those in the know, yet completely organic to the experience of watching this film.

So how is it mostly not a superhero movie? Because while its approach to plot, and its kitsch, are pure comic book, its schtick and style land it squarely in the smartass, hyper-violent crime genre mastered by Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, and also by Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn, who produced Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch and carried on the tradition masterfully in Layer Cake. Like other films in the genre, Kick-Ass revels in gorgeous visuals, brutal violence that is playful on the creative level but horrifying within the world of its characters, and quirky characters who are loaded with personality and speak in entertaining ways that tell us the writers and actors are really having a blast.

One thing that’s interesting about Kick-Ass is that unlike most big screen superhero flicks, it’s not a slick, shiny, expensive studio picture. It’s actually an indie. Vaughn went to the studios looking for financing and they demanded he make it less violent and either remove the character of Hit Girl, the adorable 11 year old killing machine with a foul mouth, or make her several years older.

Vaughn, a man of creative integrity and vision, refused and raised the money himself, from his own wallet and various friends (including Brad Pitt with whom he’d worked on Snatch). Spider-Man cost $140 million, Spider-Man 2 $200 million, Spider-Man 3 $260 million. Kick-Ass cost only $28 million. But it looks like a much more expensive film.

Once the film was done, everyone said they only wished there’d been more Hit Girl, and Lionsgate bought it for distribution.

Kick-Ass is, of course, based on the comic book written by Mark Millar and drawn by John Romita Jr. I hadn’t read it when I rented the film, but as soon as I finished watching, I fired up the PC and ordered the hardback (and the Blu-Ray of the movie). It’s good. Many of the things that are good about the movie are also in its pages. Millar’s writing is interesting and solid and bold, though he does go for the cheap shot and is perhaps too exploitive sometimes. The comic is a bit crass and mean, something the movie never is.

Artwise, this is the best work I’ve ever seen Romita do; in an extra on the Blu-Ray, he says he always vowed never to draw really violent or sexual fare, but did for this project and found it freeing and fun. Letting himself cut loose seems to have brought his drafting to life.

But back to the film. How do I love Kick-Ass? Let me count the ways.

I love the characters. All of them. From the good-hearted, naive-but-strong-of-heart Dave “Kick-Ass” Lizewski to the somewhat psychotic but goofily endearing Big Daddy to the rapier cruel and witty crime boss Frank D’Amico. There are no space-filling characters. Even the mooks working for D’Amico get great character bits, from a charming thug-turned-doorman who makes the mistake of being too nice to a masked brute who brings a scary smart humor to his narration of some torture. The characters are crisply written and acted with panache.

I love the humanity. The characters all operate with recognizable motivation, and their interactions have depth and meaning. Dave’s relationship with Katie and his friends (and the interaction between his friends and hers), D’Amico’s relationship with his son, even the off-center comraderie between the gangsters are all understandable and human. The loving bond between Big Daddy and Hit Girl is moving and strong, even within the insanity of their chosen lifestyle.

I love the direction. Matthew Vaughn brings such brio to his work that watching it actually fills me with delight. He chooses to tell this dark story in bright primary colors, making it pop with vitality and humor, his clear love of actors shows in the performances he gets out of them, and his love of film and filmmaking is clear not just in the enthusiasm with which he crafts his scenes but in his loving homage to other works.

I love the music. Vaughn worked with several composers to layer a variety of styles through the film, creating a playful and evocative soundscape for his characters to inhabit. He also worked some pop songs in with explosive effect, including a punkish cover of the old Banana Splits TV show theme that fills an uncomfortably violent scene with bubbly joy.

I love the humor. Kick-Ass is always funny, even when it’s dark or scary or brutal. Most of the humor comes from two things: one, from the characters, who are witty and you laugh at their wit not at them, and two, from the strange friction produced by seeing something shocking presented not for shock value but for fun. (Cue the Banana Splits). Kick-Ass respects our intelligence, giving us credit for being able to process something on multiple levels. It doesn’t assume a brutal scene has to only be horrifying, or that a funny scene has to only be funny.

I love the action. It’s performed, shot, and edited with clarity, energy and verve, outdoing many far more expensive action films.

And, best of all, I love Hit Girl. With all the cool ideas that Millar came up with for the comic, and all those Vaughn brought to the movie, none is cooler than Hit Girl.

Hit Girl is played by Chloë Moretz. My reflexive impulse is to write something like “Chloë Moretz is a revelation,” but I’ve seen other reviewers pretty much say that very thing, so I won’t. I will say that she’s a brilliant, charismatic, skillful, and engaging young actress who hopefully will be with us for years, getting lots of good roles and not pulling a Lohan.

Her Hit Girl performance is a tour de force, layering psychotic glee with authentic innocence, always convincing. On the surface, she’s an exploitation character, a creation meant to shock, and she is all that. But she’s not just a pint-sized tween killing machine, she’s a little girl, living the life she’s been given by a dad who’s bugshit crazy but who she loves with all her heart, and who loves her. She’s extraordinarily lethal, but still insecure enough that she feels she has to act tough. She’s a kid who feels glee in bloodily dispatching bad guys not because she’s actually vicious, but because she lacks the proper moral context for her actions, and because she’s trying her best to make Big Daddy proud.

Watch Moretz in the Banana Splits scene. She’s a whirlwind of blades and blood, but the whole time she’s grinning at Kick-Ass not from the joy of the kill, but because she’s showing off. She’s looking at him for approval. He, of course, is completely freaked out. The play between them, laced through such a scene of bloody carnage, is thereby a lot more than just a violent action scene played for laughs and gasps.

Immediately after the fight, when Hit Girl is saved from a momentary lapse of tactics that nearly gets her killed, she fidgets as Big Daddy mildly scolds her, and what we see in Moretz’s body language is a sweet little girl abashed that she’s disappointed her dad.

Moretz is incredible not just in her acting, but she takes on some incredible action sequences. While there were stunt doubles on set to do the tough parts, she trained her ass off and pushed constantly to do as much as she could. As a result, there’s apparently only a single shot in the movie that’s not her. I always thought the idea that Robin would be capable enough to help Batman without getting killed toot sweet was ridiculous, but Moretz and Vaughn make the case for Hit Girl and then some.

Yeah, I love this movie. As a matter of fact, I think it’s time to watch it again. And as I do, I’ll be hoping the whole time that Matthew Vaughn manages to get around to adapting Millar’s Kick-Ass 2 (which I believe has already begun in comics) very, very soon.

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One comment on “Good Memories of 2010, Day 7: Kick-Ass

  1. Stephen B. says:

    I have seen this DVD, and did so with the best audience, a couple of young kids and a friend. The movie does, true, have a good bit of violence in it. And the character of the young girl on reflection didn’t seem like something true to life. Which didn’t really “take me out” of believing the movie, but did let me know it was a film after all.

    It was quite enjoyable, and after all, the most someone could want from a movie is 1) Take something away from the story or 2) to be entertained.

    Thanks for the review here to read.

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