Starring: Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Chloe Moretz
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
Smartly structured to sell the same old superhero story in a fresh way, Kick-Ass (2010) is more your Unbreakable or Watchmen style comic book adaptation as opposed to Spiderman or even Chris Nolan’s Batman. It’s a satire with severed limbs. And the C-bomb. From an eleven year old girl.
About an ordinary high schooler who one day decides to become a superhero for no real reason at all, Kick-Ass is a smooth as blend of cartoon violence and very real consequences. From wannabe hero Dave Lizewski’s (Aaron Johnson) first attempt at vigilantism resulting in his stabbed, battered body being carted into the Emergency Room, to a later scene when he shoots a guy in the face with a Taser gun ‘Hangover style’, the tone is all over the place, and yet, ironically, as steady as a rock.
Matthew Vaughn is an assured director; takes his time, gets things right. Despite the OTT brawling, he disciplines himself in terms of dialogue, shots, sound and production design in a way that guvnor Quentin Tarantino, for all his filmmaking genius, simply does not. Kick-Ass is loud and ludicrous, but not in your face.
Although, like Tarantino, Vaughn appreciates how important costume is to storytelling, especially in a superhero movie. It is the first thing the protagonist considers, how they will ‘suit up’ to fight crime. Working with costume designer Sammy Sheldon, he has fashioned an exaggerated look, all from attire that can be purchased on-line. Johnson’s hero get-up is basically a wetsuit, while Nicolas Cage’s ‘Big Daddy’ wears an outfit comprised entirely of French Police riot gear. ‘Hit-Girl’ (Chloe Moretz) is a wilder concession of purple wig and plaid mini skirt, but then she is a kid.
Hit-Girl’s biker-inspired, awkwardly racy ensemble is a pseudo-Manga school uniform, most distinctively later for her briefly glimpsed disguise within a disguise, complete with knee socks, bunches and silencer. If Hit-Girl is sometimes an uncomfortable watch, then this is the director’s intention. Although, like everything in this film, you will not enjoy what you see if you analyse it to death. Kick-Ass is supposed to be fun, so get past your squirm and smile.
There has always been an inherent irony to superhero livery; that the wearer designs an elaborate costume to disguise their identity but actually attracts more attention than if they had just slipped on a balaclava instead. The hero costume, however, is a symbol. As Lizewski hilariously observes of his ‘Kick-Ass’ persona, “With no powers comes no responsibility”. Though by wearing the mask he wields implied power. “With expectation comes great responsibility,” might be more apt line, if about as funny as foot rot. Basically, you should not get in the ring if you do not want to fight.
For Italian/American mobster Frank D’Amico, Mark Strong is costumed to look like a fugitive from Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) in densely striped silk shirts and Shantung suits. The decor of his skyrise HQ resembles the nightclub Tony Montana shoots up in Scarface (1983). Frank might seen like a parody, yet his aggression is cold and calm and graphically depicted. Mark Strong judges this performance subtly. In the hands of some bloated Hollywood ex A-lister, Frank could have become a mess of facial tics and giant cigars. Strong, though, keeps his kingpin vulgar enough to be frightening, while dry enough to be human. Watch him eat breakfast like a regular dad and then shoot an innocent bystander dead in the street a few minutes later. Chilling.
Pleasingly, Strong is not an exception; Kick Ass welcomes the return of Nicolas Cage to acting (only slight sarcasm) as someone with a seriously screwed up moral centre. His Big Daddy ‘Adam…West’ voice is proof he was obviously in on the joke too.
How actors interpret tone is essential to why certain powerful scenes in Kick-Ass work. The reveal of Big Daddy instantly provokes titters at his peculiar Batman-on-a-budget costume, though Cage’s accent tells us it is okay to laugh. Likewise watching Mark Strong essentially beat up a child (i.e. Frank brawling with Hit-Girl) is both uneasy and exciting. When Hit-Girl drips blood under her nose, a moment of doubt creeps in: is this alright? Should I still be enjoying this? Two minutes later and a shaped charge projectile provides the definitive, very funny answer. Have faith in Vaughn, he knows where he is leading you.
Though not to disregard relative newcomer Aaron Johnson as titular Kick-Ass in a movie busy with (literally) colourful characters. He achieves believable and charismatic work as the goof with guts. As do his equally goofy if not half as brave friends, Marty and Todd (Clark Duke and Evan Peters). Also Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the pathetic ‘Red Mist’ and Michael Rispoli as Frank’s right hand man Big Joe, both are amusing and engaging with only minimal screen time. Really, however, this is Chloe Moretz as Hit-Girl’s movie; Hit-Girl owns this film like she would own your ass if you ever stepped to her.
She is Mathilda from Léon with added knives, Kung Fu and a lobotomised conscience. Busting chops with her single parent father Big Daddy, Hit-Girl treats death as playtime. Hardly ruining her innocence as she never had any to begin with; this has always been Mindy Macready’s life, practically since she was old enough to throw a punch. Sweary, cute and lethal from a child actor is a combination only possible through confidence, and Chloe Moretz has it in spades.
For problems in the film, count just two. Firstly, the villain lacks dramatic purpose. He is a white collar drug dealer who wants to rid New York of vigilantes. For some voters he actually ticks the right box. Secondly, it takes Kick-Ass just one not particularly impressive act of heroism to get a MySpace following in the millions and his costumed mug on Craig Ferguson. Everything just occurs a mite too fast. For the really picky there is the whole MySpace issue. Only about ten people use that site now and they’re all electro-pop bands looking for representation.
Humour, though, is the main reason Kick-Ass plays as effortlessly as it does. It is smart without being smart ass. Mathew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman, who based her script on Mark Millar’s comic book, evidently ‘get’ each other in terms of translating an idea from page to screen. A wicked gag when Frank chats to his son Chris (a.k.a. Red Mist) about cinema snacks while a hoodlum is audibly tortured then shot dead off camera is pure The Naked Gun meets Scorsese. If the dialogue on Goldman’s previous adaptation for Vaughn, the charming Stardust (2007), felt a tad forced and out of place at points, here she seems more comfortable with the characters. Their words are supremely quotable without straining to be hip.
The Kick-Ass soundtrack is immense too, with Vaughn concocting all manner of dance/rock video nasties that combine slick, gory action and belly laughs. Ilan Eshkeri’s pastiche of Danny Elfman’s Batman theme for the ‘Mist Mobile’ cruise is just delicate enough not to feel forced.
All in all, for what it is: a foul mouthed, excessively violent, comedy comic book splatter-fest, Kick-Ass is better than even its title suggests. Thanks to Hit-Girl, it’s a monumental bitch slap.
Kick-Ass is due for release on 26th March in the UK and 16th April in the U.S.
© 2010 – 2012, Chris Laverty.