Director/Coscreenwriter: Matthew Vaughn
By Roderick Heath
Like last year’s Watchmen, Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.’s graphic novel series is a weird hybrid of the awkwardly self-critical and the exhilaratingly anarchic in bringing the familiar tropes of the comic book superhero into a more demonstrably real world. Vaughn, who debuted with the entertaining Layer Cake (2004) and stretched his muscles with the underrated Stardust (2007), has been maturing into a mainstream talent who can balance the absurd and the outré with the emotionally authentic. Kick-Ass suffers from trying to be two or three different kinds of movie at once. It commences by paying a series of backhanded compliments chiefly to Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film in describing the life of nerdy Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson, who, after this and Nowhere Boy, proves himself versatile by any standards), a comic book junkie and chronic masturbator who’s recently lost his mother to a stroke at the breakfast table, and whose life is the familiar purgatory of the nothing-special teen male.
Dave ponders in all seriousness just why nobody’s ever actually attempted to enact the fantasy of being a superhero. His unfortunate notion is to attempt it himself, in spite of the fact that he has no fighting skills or survival and detecting abilities whatsoever. So, of course, in his first attempt—facing down a pair of carjackers—he gets knifed in the stomach and hit by a passing car. He makes a full recovery, except that he now has so many severed nerve endings he can barely feel pain. This gives him, funnily enough, something like a superpower. He can now intervene in street brawls without feeling all the blows being landed on him, and his sheer gumption accomplishes the rest. He soon becomes an internet sensation in his signature outfit—a sea-green wetsuit—with a legion of fans and media attention following hard upon.
But Dave soon finds himself up to his neck in a new kind of trouble. The chief object of his affection at school, Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), pleas for Kick-Ass’s aid in getting rid of a thug who’s been harassing her in her volunteer job; he proves to be a drug dealer, Rasul (Kofi Natei), with a posse of fellow bad-asses. Dave proceeds heedlessly and faces a situation in which he’ll inevitably die after zapping Rasul in the forehead with a taser, but then he’s rescued by the most unlikely of saviours: an utterly deadly 12-year-old who calls herself Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz). She devastates Rasul’s crew in a whirlwind of bloody mayhem to the tune of The Dickies’ cover of the “The Banana Splits” theme. Hit-Girl is really Mindy Macready, daughter of former policeman Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage), who goes by the sobriquet of Big Daddy and dresses like a sort of sawn-off Batman. As a comic book fan himself, he’s developed these guises to help him and Mindy prosecute their long and ruthless campaign to destroy the criminal empire of Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), who, to get Damon out of his hair back when he was a policeman, framed him on drugs charges. The set-up resulted in Big Daddy’s imprisonment and caused the eventual suicide of his wife, Mindy’s mother. D’Amico, increasingly enraged by the impact on his business by the Macreadys, comes to believe that Kick-Ass is actually the source of his troubles. D’Amico’s son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who happens to be a schoolmate of Dave’s, comes up with idea of ensnaring Kick-Ass by pretending to be another superhero wannabe, calling himself Red Mist and driving a shit-cool sports car.
Kick-Ass takes a long time to find its groove in trying to fit together the shabby charm of Dave’s crime-fighting campaign, his normal life, the askew depiction of the D’Amicos’ dim-witted but effectively brutal crime family, and the almost operatically perverse revenge drama that the Macreadys are driving along. Vaughn and cowriter Jane Goldman softened some of the most cynical aspects of Millar and Romita’s creation, lending the tale a more familiar, but also more rigorous drama. There’s already the deliberately provocative spectacle of a foul-mouthed killer angel facing down a roomful of gangsters with the challenge, “Okay you cunts, let’s see what you can do now!” It’s impossible to doubt the film’s chief joke is the way it carelessly assaults all suburban pieties about safety and security, as well as more profoundly ingrained ones about just who can deal out violence to whom. But rather than being a trope merely provided to piss off people, Damon and Mindy’s relationship is actually one of the most uniquely loving between a father and daughter that’s made it on screen; their subplot seems inspired by the Lone Wolf and Cub series of manga and films from the early ’70s, with Damon as Itto Ogami and Mindy as Daigoro. Damon’s brought Mindy up to regard her violent abilities as the greatest game in the world, promising her ice cream after she’s proven she can stand up and face a bullet in her body-armour-clad chest, and Mindy’s take-no-shit, take-no-prisoners attitude proves a not unhelpful one as the heat turns up. Damon’s unusual fathering technique is based on an unshakeable love of his child and of the shattered family life they’ve lost, and as reprehensible as the notion is, it finally proves both a brilliant inversion of the usual images of strength and capability, and a most unexpected paean to family values.
Simultaneously, the gay panic that’s often dealt with more tangentially in these sorts of things, with all the romantic befuddlement of young men assuming secret identities, bubbles to the service. Dave finds himself drawn into a close relationship with Katie, who, because of the fact he was found with no clothes on when he was stabbed (he begged the ambulance man to hide his wetsuit) has been popularly assumed to have been the victim of a gay bashing. Katie latches onto him then as the platonic friend she’s always wished she had, all the while worshipping Kick-Ass. When Dave finally attempts to approach her in a romantic fashion, it’s in the Kick-Ass character—only to have her wheel on him in fright and beat him until he unmasks himself. It’s a subplot that reminded me, funnily enough, of the roots this type of story has in the Shakespearean pastoral, with all the gender-bending disguises and cross-purpose affection, with the added cravenness of Dave having followed the advice of his comic-nerd friends Marty and Todd (Clark Duke and Evan Peters) in going along with his absurd subterfuge. Meanwhile his friendship with Chris’s Red Mist alter-ego seems like a meeting of unexpected soul mates, at least at first, as in a delightful throwaway moment when they team up to bop geekily in Red Mist’s car to the strains of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”; once Red Mist realises Kick-Ass’ essential harmlessness, he tries to keep the boy out of his father’s sights. That’s impossible, however, as Frank’s been so angered by the damage to his outfit that he attacks and shoots dead a Kick-Ass impersonator whom he believes is the real thing.
The problem with Kick-Ass is that the variegated aspects in its first half don’t mesh: the seriousness of the Macreadys’ tale, and the exaggerated black humour that bobs up throughout (for example, D’Amico’s goons jamming a guy in an industrial microwave to interrogate him only to have him explode before he can answer a question) hardly gels with the anti-romance of Dave and Katie and the affectionate feel for teenage straits. And yet it’s a part of the film’s appeal, for me, that it refuses to limit its scope. It’s Moretz, who takes to her pint-sized hellion like a duck to water (after likewise stealing (500) Days of Summer from the adults around her), who galvanises the film whenever she appears, like when she momentarily horrifies her father with a professed desire for a pony for her birthday, before revealing her real wish is a butterfly knife to slice and dice opponents with psychopathic bravura. She speaks with a Clint Eastwood lilt when in character as Hit-Girl.
Vaughn’s greatest strength as a director so far has been part and parcel with his most awkward trait. His feel for character interaction, skill with actors, and odd mix of killer instinct and sentimentality, give his movies a lopsided, unhurried kind of charm, which unfortunately, tended to render his climaxes generally much less interesting than the journey getting to them. He conquers at least that trait here, as Kick-Ass improves exponentially as the dramatic stakes heighten, and where the film’s crazy gambit seems to promise garish, pop-art momentum, Vaughn takes a longer way around to an emotional weight that’s defiantly quirky: when he appropriates Ennio Morricone’s theme for For A Few Dollars More (1966) for Mindy’s date-with-destiny penetration of D’Amico’s apartment building, it isn’t just movie-brat quote, but an appropriate one. His film doesn’t degenerate into a series of weightless sketches like Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005), not does it turn bland like so many recent superhero movies, and it’s willing to ruffle feathers in a way certain overrated hits I could name couldn’t imagine. Vaughn instead wins his way through to ragged glory with two actions scenes in the last third that manage to be at once hair-raising, appalling, and hilarious.
The first comes when Red Mist’s plots work to ensnare Damon, and he and Dave are held in a basement by D’Amico’s thugs; the unexpected discovery that Dave made that everyone was hungry for a world in which superheroes really exist has found its bitter codicil in people all too willing to play supervillains, too. D’Amico’s thugs unleash hellish violence on their captives, beating them to bloody messes as a precursor to setting them on fire, with a colossal internet and TV audience watching in horror as their new heroes as turned nearly into mincemeat before their eyes. This sequence captures something oddly acute about our real-time world not far from what Brian de Palma managed with Redacted. Vaughn builds beautifully to the inevitable, but still sweat-inducingly delayed moment when Hit-Girl, presumed dead after being shot by Red Mist, makes mincemeat of the goons, but not in time to save her father in what’s definitely the most emotionally intense action scene I’ve seen in ages.
As ludicrous and indecent as it is, it’s impossible not to relish Mindy’s subsequent rampage through D’Amico’s penthouse and Dave’s haphazard efforts to aid her: a dizzying ballet with kitchen knifes, gatling guns, bazookas, and jet packs ensues, with the useless, yet vehement Dave and Chris battling each other to a mutual knock-out whilst Mindy and D’Amico match martial arts skills with the fury of real antagonists. As well as Moretz, I also enjoyed Strong’s villainy, and Cage, who’s found an interesting recent sideline playing crazy cops, sports a frazzled sleazestache and slight air of seaminess that remined me of Stanley Tucci’s murderer in The Lovely Bones (2009), only with his obsessive sociopathy channelled to slightly more positive ends. If the whole project then doesn’t live up to all its promise, and at halfway point, I didn’t really know what movie I was watching, by the end, I knew I’d had the most stirring ride I’ve had in a movie so far this year—which, admittedly, hasn’t been a huge task.
And remember kids: don’t try this at home.