Thursday, April 7, 2011

Kick-Ass

I did not grow up with superhero films like this. No, I instead marveled at Christopher Reeve in a red and blue cape and Lou Ferrigno painted green. Sure, there were also darker comic strip films like CREEPSHOW and HEAVY METAL, but caped crusaders' exploits were family friendly adventures with only the mildest of innuendoes and moderate violence. It is not 1980 any longer.

Many comic books were harsh and bloody, their pages filled with crushing physical and emotional brutality. Once I realized there were more interesting, tormented souls beyond what the League of Justice displayed on Saturday mornings, I began to see that the 70s/80s SUPERMANs were diluted and sanded down for your protection. Tim Burton introduced a heavier take with his BATMAN series in the late 80s/early 90s, and more recently WATCHMEN gave us R-rated superhero episodes.

Taking it a step further perhaps is director/co-writer Matthew Vaughan's 2010 midrange guilty pleasure called KICK-ASS, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. It's loaded with over-the-top violence and gore and rude language, much of it courtesy of a sweet 11-year old girl named Mindy who also goes by the name, "Hit-Girl". It's a deadly accurate moniker, as this kid can waste flanks of bad guys with pretty much any weapon you can imagine.

Mindy's mentor is her father, Damon/"Big Daddy" (Nicolas Cage, playing it with some eccentricity), who, as we learn in a nifty sequence employing comic book panels, was once a cop who sought to bring down a sleaze known as Frank D'Amico, a local mobster/drug dealer. D'Amico got Damon framed on some bogus charge, and after a stretch in the joint, Damon re-invents himself as Big Daddy, a powerful superhero who has an impressive arsenal. He makes a life out of seeking vengeance against D'Amico. After his wife dies giving birth to Mindy, Damon trains her to become the pint-sized slaughterhouse that is Hit-Girl.

Meanwhile, we also meet Dave (Aaron Johnson), a geeky high schooler who dreams of being a superhero. When your reality is bleak (girls ignore you, mother has passed away), it is natural to want to emulate the life of someone powerful and fearless. Dave orders a goofy green cape off the Internet and begins to stalk rooftops, realizing quickly that superhero work is dangerous stuff. Having not been born on another planet, bitten by a radioactive spider, or blessed with unlimited financial resources, he quickly finds this gig impossible. Then a few unfortunate, life-changing things happen and before long, he's actually holding his own against a gang that has cornered some luckless dude. Dave's brazeness (certainly more than those batons he wields) emerges victorious and the baddies walk away. A kid in a diner captures the entire episode with his phone.

Soon, the clip becomes a YouTube sensation. Dave dubs himself "Kick-Ass" and becomes yet another anonymous hero. His alter-ego fills the Internet and supplies fodder for reporter and late night comedian alike. But Dave still has no superpowers and can't really fight. He does have nerve and attitude. Would that be enough against a real foe, someone like D'Amico, who watches the media coverage and thinks this Kick-Ass guy may threaten his empire?

Dave and Mindy and Damon's stories soon overlap, the former realizing the other two are the real deal, able to put down societal scum with efficiency and force. An alliance forms. The tone of the film will darken a bit, but curiously KICK-ASS, despite a generous barrage of carnage, remains essentially an underdog story in which you root for some decent people. Bad people even have a change of heart at times?! Underneath the harshness, this is little different from the innocent cartoon escapades with which I grew up. How such a frantic, of-its-time film maintains such a tone is a tribute to the filmmakers.

But. Mindy (Chloe Moretz) does pepper more than one sentence with some dirty words, even the vile one which one of my old schoolmates called "the c u next Tuesday" word. Recall that she's 11 years old. She dispatches D'Amico's goons with gunfire, fisticuffs, and knifery in all parts of their anatomies, with some graphic bursts of gore. This disturbed some critics, but its description is much worse than how it plays. It isn't as disturbing as it sounds, strangely enough. Or maybe I'm just jaded? The violence here is so over stylized that it never feels realistic, never becomes disturbing the way it would in a more grounded film. This does exclude a torture scene late in the movie, it must be noted.

Vaughan and company have created a swift diversion that is great fun if you like this sort of thing. KICK-ASS is chaotic and sometimes ugly but is fast-moving and satisfying on some visceral level. Just don't let your kids watch it. You know, those who would most be attracted to it. On second thought, maybe A SAFE PLACE director Henry Jaglom had it right: Hollywood has long made movies for overgrown adolescents, by overgrown adolescents. Just look at the slate of new releases for 2011.....

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