Kick-Ass

Movie Information

The Story: A mild-mannered teen -- and comic-book nerd -- decides to try his hand at becoming a superhero, only to find himself in over his head with the mob and other masked heroes. The Lowdown: A gory, often funny, slickly made attempt at reimagining the superhero genre that never hits the right tone. Ultimately, the movie is unable to balance realism with absurdity and subversiveness with clichés.
Score:

Genre: Postmodern Comic-Book Flick
Director: Matthew Vaughn (Stardust)
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong
Rated: R

The more I mull over Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, the more I feel disappointed in it. Having much enjoyed Vaughn’s last feature, Stardust (2007), and having liked his first film, Layer Cake (2004), more than anyone else I know, I had high hopes for this movie. Add in a potentially clever premise—a teenage nerd with no superpowers decides to become a superhero—and the possibility of a bout of bad taste and absurdity in the form of over-the-top violence, and my anticipation for a couple of hours of trashy entertainment was great.

The pity is, however, that what I was hoping for and what I got only kind of match up—and a lot of this has to do with Kick-Ass never quite latching onto the right tone. The general idea is for the movie to be one of those postmodern deconstructions of superhero lore that pop up from time to time, from The Tick to Pixar’s The Incredibles. Here, the premise is firmly wedged between the real world and the question of what would happen if a normal, everyday teen—out of a sense of optimism and naïveté—decided to become a masked superhero called Kick-Ass.

The sometimes clever, often cheeky observations of comic-book truisms are the film’s apex. This is when Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman are at their best, and when the film manages to be both quirky and funny. But if you start to poke around underneath, you’ll find a tendency for the movie to subvert its own subversiveness.

With all the trouble the film goes to in order to reinvent the comic-book movie, the bare bones of the plot is Superhero Flick 101. Even the subplot of nerdy, psychotic superhero Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter and protégé Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz, Diary of a Wimpy Kid) gets whittled down to nothing more than a revenge yarn. For all the effort the film takes in making itself the antithesis of yet another Batman or Spider-Man movie, it never manages to quite set itself apart. At the same time, while Kick-Ass aims to exist in the real world, the action scenes are nothing but absurd. Unable to find the right pitch, the movie wavers from one mood to the other.

None of this means the film has little going for it. On the contrary, the action scenes are assured, coherent and—best of all—imaginative. Vaughn’s direction oozes style, and this kind of over-energized action picture suits him perfectly. But he does more than just shoot fight scenes and shoot-outs. In one instance, Vaughn managed with a couple of mugs of hot chocolate to get more of an emotional reaction out of me than he has any right to. And along with Werner Herzog and his recent Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans, the movies have me reassessing my opinion of Nicolas Cage (at least until he and his animal-pelt hairpiece return this summer in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). In a lot of ways, it’s the things that Vaughn nails that makes the movie a bit of a letdown, because they point to the potential for something so much greater.

A lot has been made in some quarters—including a pretty scathing review by Roger Ebert—of the fact that the film features 11-year-old superhero Hit-Girl partaking in wholesale (albeit extremely stylized) murder on multiple occasions. (It’s worth noting that the objections are more to the age of the character than the acts themselves). The movie never condones any of this, but never completely damns it either. Maybe I’m too jaded or desensitized, but I never found Hit-Girl’s antics as morally repugnant as some believe I’m supposed to.

In the end, does Kick-Ass up the ante in action movies? Yes. Is it horribly offensive? It would appear that is up to the viewer to decide. Rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use—some involving children.

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23 thoughts on “Kick-Ass

  1. I really loved this picture – and I’ll probably see this again before it leaves the cinemas.

    I don’t share Mr Souther’s reservations about the tone of the film. I thought the realistic and fantastic elements both served the same purpose – the lead character satirized the Spider-Man type of superhero by presenting a more realistic take on the nerd becomes hero story and the Big Daddy story satirized the Punisher revenge story type of hero by emphasizing how clearly unbalanced the character is, with elements of the Adam West Batman thrown in for good measure.

    Oddly enough, I think this is the only film I’ve seen that’s accurately captured teenagers. Ever. I think a lot of this comes down to the level of swearing being perfectly representative of real teenagers and the characters not talking in perfect witticisms or catch phrases (not that I dislike the latter approach in films, it’s just not realistic). I don’t think there was a false note in any of the scenes concerning those characters.

    Oh, and regarding the somewhat controversial line that Hit Girl has in her first scene – it absolutely brought the house down in the screening I attended, including a smattering of applause from some girls in the audience.

    And I’m beginning to think Nicolas Cage should exclusively play unhinged weirdos from now on. I saw this and BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS a week apart and loved him unreservedly in both of them.

  2. Vince Lugo

    I’m a huge fan of comic book movies and Kick Ass has made my list of favorites. I think it’s kind of funny that critics are so uneasy about Hit Girl because she’s the film’s best character. The ones offended by the film have completely missed the point, which is that Kick Ass is nothing more or less than the ultimate adolescent fantasy cranked up to eleven. If you can dig that and enjoy the film, you’re among the cool people. If you can’t and think that the film is a “crime against cinema” (as one british reviewer said), then you reveal how truly uncool you are. And if you have kids who want to see this, I think (depending on their age of course) that you should let them because if you say no, they’ll find a way to see it anyway. But watch it with them and have a discussion afterwards about the difference between movies and reality. That would be the more responsible thing to do. Oh, and by the way, Mark Millar is currently working on a sequel comic book, so with any luck a sequel film won’t be far behind.

  3. Jim Donato

    Mr. Dylan. You must be a youngster. Believe it or not, Nicolas Cage began his once proud career playing a wide variety unhinged characters in quirky films. Then it all started going tragically wrong, and he ended up in questionable mainstream schlock. There was a time I sought out any Cage film but that ended in the early 90s. Now I pick and choose with care.

  4. davidf

    Thanks for the good honest review, Justin. This looks like a popcorn flick I’ll enjoy a great deal, even enjoy its unevenness of tone, as long as I suspend being critical of it’s meaningful implications. I was hoping for a movie that wouldn’t make me do that, but that’s always my hope.
    I wish MOTHER was playing in my area.
    Ken, I’m curious if you saw KICK ASS and what your take is.

  5. Justin Souther

    I thought the realistic and fantastic elements both served the same purpose – the lead character satirized the Spider-Man type of superhero by presenting a more realistic take on the nerd becomes hero story and the Big Daddy story satirized the Punisher revenge story type of hero by emphasizing how clearly unbalanced the character is, with elements of the Adam West Batman thrown in for good measure.

    While I see what you’re saying and I can concede that’s what the movie was shooting for, it still doesn’t work on that level for me. This got me to thinking, however, on what might be the underlying reason why I don’t like the film as much as I want to: comic books just don’t interest me. If I were a person more in tune in the long-standing mythology of superhero comics this satirization might’ve pulled me in more. Instead, it just doesn’t do much for me beyond the level of occasional amusement. And for me, the whole post-modern superhero deconstruction is old hat beyond whatever nostalgic feelings I have towards watching The Tick as a youngster.

    Oddly enough, I think this is the only film I’ve seen that’s accurately captured teenagers. Ever. I think a lot of this comes down to the level of swearing being perfectly representative of real teenagers and the characters not talking in perfect witticisms or catch phrases (not that I dislike the latter approach in films, it’s just not realistic). I don’t think there was a false note in any of the scenes concerning those characters.

    I’m not sure I agree with this, but I can’t come up with a better example off the top of my head. As plot and interaction go though, it doesn’t feel too far off from something like Superbad. In this case I guess it just comes down to not being impressed in the same fashion. Honestly, I got little more from the film’s portrayal of teenager-dom than any number of wise-cracking teen comedies.

  6. Justin Souther

    If you can dig that and enjoy the film, you’re among the cool people. If you can’t and think that the film is a “crime against cinema” (as one british reviewer said), then you reveal how truly uncool you are.

    I can most likely assure you that any critic who dislikes Kick-Ass for these reasons is worried about being seen as “cool.” I also reasonably believe that being or not being a “cool person” isn’t legitimate critical criteria.

  7. I’m not sure I agree with this, but I can’t come up with a better example off the top of my head. As plot and interaction go though, it doesn’t feel too far off from something like Superbad. In this case I guess it just comes down to not being impressed in the same fashion. Honestly, I got little more from the film’s portrayal of teenager-dom than any number of wise-cracking teen comedies.
    Well, the only thing I can say to that is that I was a teenager until a month ago today. It felt right to me. I’ve never really had that feeling before.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I wish MOTHER was playing in my area.

    Come on over.

    Ken, I’m curious if you saw KICK ASS and what your take is.

    I have yet to catch up with it.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Well, the only thing I can say to that is that I was a teenager until a month ago today. It felt right to me. I’ve never really had that feeling before.

    A point of curiosity — how do you feel about the portrayal of kids and teens in Edward Scissorhands? And though I’m at a disadvantage here not having seen Kick-Ass, what sets this apart from Superbad?

  10. A point of curiosity—how do you feel about the portrayal of kids and teens in Edward Scissorhands?
    I enjoyed watching those characters, but they didn’t feel like any people my own age (I first saw the film when I was 12). Whether those portrayals are true to teenagers in 1990, I can’t say. I was nine months old when that film was released.

    And though I’m at a disadvantage here not having seen Kick-Ass, what sets this apart from Superbad?
    I haven’t seen Superbad (I hope I didn’t give the impression that I had), so I can’t answer that question. I think the thing that marked it out from most teen comedies that they seemed like people, not stock characters drawn up by middle aged Hollywood writers.
    They all seemed like people I knew in high school – not specific people, but as if they could’ve easily coexisted in the same world. This is not something that I could say about the teens in AMERICAN PIE, the HARRY POTTER franchise or any other example I can think of of teens in Hollywood movies. Again, that doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the leads in HARRY POTTER, I just don’t buy those characters as teenagers.
    Some of this that they never go too far – the characters aren’t too nerdy or too wiseassy. Those are qualities, rather than characters. And perhaps, more than anything, the level of swearing is pitched exactly right. If there’s one thing nearly all teenagers do, it’s swear. It’s the last bit of everyday language we learn, so we tend to find it fascinating and experiment with permutations of various swear words, many of which retain their novelty value for much of our high school years. If I watch a film about kids of high school age and they never say anything racier than ‘hell’, my brain immediately goes ‘That is not how teenagers talk’.
    When I watched KICK-ASS, my brain went ‘Yeah, those seem like teenagers’.

    Now I’m worried about this preoccupying you when you watch the film.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I enjoyed watching those characters, but they didn’t feel like any people my own age (I first saw the film when I was 12). Whether those portrayals are true to teenagers in 1990, I can’t say. I was nine months old when that film was released.

    More to the point is whether they’re like adolescents and teenagers ca. 1968-70, which I’d say they are in most respects. What I’m getting at is that I think the film is true to the worldview of someone who was born in 1958, which Burton was. In other words, I don’t think these things are likely to be universal.

    If there’s one thing nearly all teenagers do, it’s swear. It’s the last bit of everyday language we learn, so we tend to find it fascinating and experiment with permutations of various swear words, many of which retain their novelty value for much of our high school years. If I watch a film about kids of high school age and they never say anything racier than ‘hell’, my brain immediately goes ‘That is not how teenagers talk’.

    I would agree, but I’d caution that this is an unfair criticism dependent very much on the filmmaker’s target audience and aims. Would non-stop swearing improve Edward Scissorhands? I really don’t think it would. In fact, I think it would feel awkward. I’m actually more interested in the reality of how the characters act and what their concerns are than in whether they talk like pint-sized David Mamets. I’d also argue that movie dialogue is, by its very nature, not realistic — with or without swearing — and I am thankful for that. At best, it’s realistic to the context of the movie, thereby offering the illusion of reality.

  12. Would non-stop swearing improve Edward Scissorhands? I really don’t think it would
    I agree – I tried to make it clear that the unreality of pre-adult characters in films doesn’t detract from them for me – see the Harry Potter example.

  13. Daniel Withrow

    I don’t know if nonstop swearing would improve Edward Scissorhands either, but the idea is pretty intriguing. The violence in this movie sounds like it’s a little too much for me (I cringed too much at Kill Bill Part I to think I could enjoy this), but this is a personal taste, not an aesthetic judgment. For me, nothing captures adolescence quite like Welcome to the Dollhouse, which is why I’ll never watch that horrifyingly accurate movie again.

  14. Mummer

    My teenage years were confined to the first part of the last decade, but I can’t say myself or my friends swore all that often. Maybe we *were* too nerdy.

  15. jasondelaney

    This movie lives up to its name. I did not expect to like this movie, much less love it, but I’m glad my expectations were shattered. Nicholas Cage is the best Batman I’ve ever seen. I can only wish superhero movies were this fun to watch.

  16. jasondelaney

    Has anyone else noticed that most reactions to this movie center around Hit Girl? Whether they liked, loved, or hated this, their strongest opinions all seemed based on that one character. I say bravo to an actress so young stealing the show like this. I’ve also seen some critics claiming this has some pedophilia undertones similar to The Professional and Natalie Portman in that film. I don’t see that at all and think that critique tells more about the author then the subject. What say you, people of Mountain Xpress?

  17. Dee

    Okay, I’m going to catch hell for this, but the first Twilight film, with its long gazes and awkward dialogue, captured the train wreck teenage years to me. Which is part of the reason why it was so painful to watch. and hilarious.

    I feel the same when I watch Outsiders. just looking at Dillon’s face. again, hilarious.

  18. Ken Hanke

    No, and I think I’ve waited too long, because I’m pretty sure it vanishes from our screens here on Thursday.

  19. Tonberry

    Finally caught up with this last night. The most entertaining movie I’ve seen so far this year, and has to be one of the best movie going experiences I’ve had in a while. I am kinda glad this review ‘downplays’ the film, as I was expecting to be disappointed too, but ended up loving the film warts and all. It also has a particular scene that wowed the hell out of me, haven’t had that particular feeling since “Book of Eli.”

    Me thinks this might end up on my top ten list of 2010.

  20. Ken Hanke

    The most entertaining movie I’ve seen so far this year, and has to be one of the best movie going experiences I’ve had in a while.

    This year has had Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, Mother, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Secret in Their Eyes. Just pointing that out…

  21. This year has had Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, Mother, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Secret in Their Eyes. Just pointing that out…
    Indeed. But how many of those has Mr/Ms Berry seen?

    I’ve only seen one of those five, and while I would put Shutter Island ahead of Kick-Ass, they’d both be in my top five so far.

  22. Tonberry

    Indeed. But how many of those has Mr/Ms Berry seen?

    Only “Shutter Island,” and while it is the better movie, it just wasn’t quite the movie going experience that “Kick-Ass” was.

    (Mr. for future ref)

    I’ll have to catch up with those films eventually, I just haven’t been going to the movies quite as often as I have in the last few years.

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