Immediately upon arrival, the R-rated Kick-Ass has stirred up some small controversy with its inordinate amount of profanity and its extreme violence, most of that involving an eleven-year-old girl. I guess that’s controversial, but haven’t we already had those conversations before, with movies as far back as The Professional? We should probably never be totally comfortable with seeing a young girl shooting at and being shot at by grown men, but if the movie justifies it with enough cinematic quality and thematic sophistication, then I personally have no problem with controversial imagery. Unfortunately, I truly am sorry to report that Kick-Ass has much bigger problems than whatever degree of morality it does or doesn’t have – Kick-Ass has enough trouble worrying about being a good movie.
Which it really, really isn’t.
You might have heard, like I did, from any number of enthusiastic sources that Kick-Ass was going to be the next Pulp Fiction, or Fight Club, or The Dark Knight. It’s not. It’s depressingly disappointing to my eyes, regardless of inflated expectations, and it suffers from fundamental failures on the levels of story and execution that its many champions seem to be overlooking.
But let’s back up and set the stage for the newcomers and laymen: Kick-Ass is based on a Mature Readers comic from writer Mark Millar (who is a heavily influential name in comics right now for his drastic re-inventions of popular characters and for his tendency to engage in shock tactics) and artist John Romita Jr. (who is best known for his work on Marvel’s Spider-Man and who is unquestionably one of the greatest superhero draftsmen of the modern era.) Kick-Ass is about an average high school comic book geek who decides to put on a garish costume and fight street crime with nothing other than a pair of nunchucks. Along the way he takes many brutal beatings, and gets involved with a fellow pair of crime-fighters named Hit-Girl and Big Daddy,who are basically a much nastier version of Batman & Robin.
Kick-Ass the movie isn’t a straight adaptation of the comic book, since after that initial set-up, the screenwriters (Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman) began working on the film story concurrently. I haven’t read Kick-Ass the comic beyond the first issue, so I don’t know how truthful the movie is to the comic, and from what I hear, there are significant differences. (Although most early reviews coming from comic fans suggest that the movie is better! Doesn’t bode well for the comic at all.) Matthew Vaughn is a British producer-turned-filmmaker. He began by producing a couple of popular movies that I did not enjoy – Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch – because I found them to be heavily into style over substance (much as I believe Kick-Ass to be). However, then Vaughn moved into directing, and made Layer Cake, which I liked, and Stardust, his previous collaboration with Jane Goldman, which I liked even more. Neither movie is a classic but both indicate a thoughtful and considered filmmaker who was on a steady trajectory of improved craft and increased scale. So it’s not like I was rooting against Kick-Ass, as I hope you’ll understand. And even though I considered walking out, which I rarely do, there were some things I liked about Kick-Ass. Here they are, in list form:
1. Chloe Moretz, as the pre-adolescent vigilante firestorm known as Hit-Girl, is convincing and likable and not at all cloying as so many child actors can be. She deserved a better movie, and if she was going to be exposed to such adult dialogue, it should have been more worthwhile. As it is, she’s talking dirty and saying nothing.
2. Nicolas Cage, as Big Daddy, the fallen cop who raises his daughter from birth to be a vengeance machine, is sweet and funny and apparently reminding all the film geeks who forgot why they liked him in the first place of his unconventional star quality and charismatic weirdness. His character is entirely inconsistent as written, but Cage is always entertaining in all of the modes he’s asked to play.
3. Clark Duke, as the main character’s sarcastic high school buddy, is funny and swift. He’s an uncommonly deft young film comedian. I liked him a lot in Hot Tub Time Machine and the under-seen Sex Drive, and he’s just as funny here, even if he’s stuck in a generic nerd role.
4. Lyndsy Fonseca, also from Hot Tub Time Machine, is very, very cute. She has a likable screen presence too, even though her character is also written drastically inconsistently – even by the unpredictable standards of high school girls.
5. Mark Strong, as the gangster boss, is a character actor on the rise, and this movie, successful or not, will only keep the ball rolling. He’s a little too likable here to ever convince as a bad guy, but as a calling card for his growing success in movies, that’s no bad thing. It just robs this movie of some dramatic heft.
6. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, from Superbad and Role Models, plays the gangster’s son and also, as you know from the posters, a super-character called the Red Mist. This poor kid is always going to be known as McLovin (if only because it’s easier to say than Christopher Mintz-Plasse), but he’s a terrifically energetic comic element to every film he appears in. He’s wasted here. Anyone who says otherwise should take another look at his sparse dialogue and limited opportunity to cut loose and be funny.
7. Michael Rispoli, best known as Richie Aprile from the early episodes of The Sopranos, plays the gangster’s consigliere. Weirdly, he looks more like Little Steven’s Silvio from The Sopranos here, but otherwise it’s a thankless role for the talented Rispoli. I was glad to see him, but disappointed in how little he had to do.
So I liked the main cast, with one notable exception. Vaughn’s problem isn’t that he cast the wrong people, not by a long shot, but instead that he strands them all with underwritten roles, contradictory behavior to play, and confusingly-directed performances. The actors are all so willing and professional that the people who like the movie haven’t noticed these apparent flaws, but that’s just a testament to these actors’ skill and to the initial enthusiasm of the audience. On repeated viewings, the cracks in the façade that is Kick-Ass will begin to show.
Don’t believe me? That’s fine. I wouldn’t want to take away anyone’s enjoyment of a movie, honestly. But since Roger Ebert and other prominent critics have been attacked for their level-headed (and, in my educated opinion, entirely correct) appraisals of Kick-Ass – even by people who haven’t yet seen the movie – then it’s time to take the excitement down a peg. The following is a list of bullet points of what is wrong with Kick-Ass. If you love the movie and you think that anyone who disagrees is “old” and out-of-touch, then it falls to you to explain why the following fairly obvious flaws aren’t actually flaws at all. And yes, it has to be bullet points because that’s how many of them there are…
· There’s something off-putting about Aaron Johnson as Dave Lizewski, a.k.a. Kick-Ass. I’ve since read that he’s a British kid trying to do an American accent, and that would begin to explain it. If he learned his American accent by listening to tapes of the occasionally obnoxious Jamie Kennedy, it would explain it even more. Johnson continually widens his eyes and leans towards the camera, as if to give it a big kiss – he suggests none of the teenage aggression that would make sense for a character who chooses to go out at night and get into fights. He’s further hampered by a mistaken-gay-identity subplot that belongs more in the inevitable Three’s Company movie rather than a high-school-superhero movie. (This subplot cheapens not only the main character, but his love interest as well.) Perhaps because he’s such a non-entity, Kick-Ass comes off as a supporting character in his own movie – even though he’s the narrator, the story frequently veers off into scenes that he couldn’t possibly be aware of, such as the many digressions into the gangster world and the total hijacking of the movie by its two most interesting characters.
· The look of the film is atrocious. The cinematography, credited to Ben Davis, is strangely lit, strangely composed, and strangely yellowed. The movie looks like it was shot in a dirty basement lit by fluorescent overheads – and that’s even during the daytime exteriors. All of the characters have a weird glow to them, and no one looks particularly good. At best, it looks like what happens to your comics when you leave them out too long in the sun. Sure, this could be intentional, but what’s the reason? Is this a parody of superhero films? Does the movie look bad because its hero is bad at being a hero? Is it a stylistic choice made according to taste? (And if so, who has taste that horrendous?)
· The film’s score is a horrible mess. I was actually wondering going into it, “What kind of music will this film have?” Will it have an overly dramatic orchestral score, like the Batman movies, or a slightly more earnest one, like the Spider-Man movies? Will the score go for comedy, sincerity, or irony? From the opening credits, there were already indications that this decision was never even made. The score is credited to four people – Marius DeVries, Ilan Eshkeri, Henry Jackman, and John Murphy – and I suspect that they only got John Murphy’s name on there because they used huge chunks of his popular scores to 28 Days Later and Sunshine at pivotal moments in the story. When those admittedly great (but misused) cues are being used, the movie at least sounds good – in all other instances, the film’s music is tentative and haphazard. Sonically, Kick-Ass is a patchwork mess of a film, and I think we can all agree that the true great films have great scores. Film is unique in its blend of sound and vision, and in these respects Kick-Ass is inferior.
· The production design is similarly lazy. I know that the budget was small, but did the scenes shot on studio lots need to look so awkwardly artificial? This movie is supposed to be set in New York – has anyone behind the scenes ever actually been to New York? Some of the building faces were laughably artificial, which is definitely an issue for a story about real-world superheroics. On a smaller note, the Atomic Comics set, where the teenagers regularly congregate, comes off as disingenuous. It’s a cute idea, and the world would be a better place if comic book stores had comfortable diner booths and a coffee bar where cute girls would happily congregate, but again – there’s no real-world correlation here. On an even smaller note, I could swear that, in the daylight alleyway scene where Mark Strong shoots “Kick-Ass” and is hustled back into his car by his massive bodyguard, the bodyguard actually gets into the passenger side of the car. I know that this movie was made by Englishmen, but come on, now! That’s rookie Film Flubs stuff there, and it takes any viewer who catches it right out of the movie.
· Why does Hit-Girl swear so much? This is a deceptively important question. Sure, maybe you think it’s funny to hear a young girl call a roomful of drug dealers “cunts.” That’s not my sense of humor, but maybe it’s yours, and that’s fine. But if there’s not a story-based reason for it, then it’s cheap shock value, something that legitimately good movies do not bother with. Way back in Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese appeared in a brief scene where he repeatedly uses the word “nigger” and tells Robert DeNiro’s character that he’s going to kill a woman. DeNiro nods calmly, and that’s what lets us know that Travis Bickle is completely detached from society. By contrast, Hit-Girl sneers and curses with no apparent reason but to make the invisible audience gasp and laugh. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl have a sweet, loving relationship where they have hot chocolate and talk warmly to each other. He’s kind of a square. (Also: why is Big Daddy such a square out of costume, when he spent twelve years in prison and is now a badass Batman superhero?) Sure, he taught her how to use all kinds of deadly weapons, but otherwise he seems to be a normal dad. Who taught her how to swear like that? Was it Marcus, Big Daddy’s ex-partner on the force who raised Hit-Girl while Big Daddy was away? I don’t think so. See, if there’s no reason for incongruous behavior, there’s good reason to believe that the script is kinda bad. You could make up reasons, such as that she picked up those words from the criminals she fights, but then you’re doing work that the filmmakers didn’t do.
· Along those lines, why on earth does the gangster boss commit resources and his son’s safety to allow McLovin to follow through on his ridiculous plan to SPOILER ALERT pose as the Red Mist just to infiltrate Kick-Ass’s trust and then betray him? I thought the whole plot of the movie was that a high-school kid dresses up like a superhero and then attracts the attention of realistic criminals. Of course, the criminals have to come off as a little bit heightened and exaggerated, but even so, it’s a remarkable leap to assume that any powerful New York criminal gang-leader would relent to something so patently absurd. Beyond that, SPOILER ALERT, the Red Mist’s assuming of the gangster throne in the final scene of the movie is a reversal so unbelievable and out of character that it comes off as flat and sloppy. A couple scenes previous, he was begging his dad to spare Kick-Ass. Now he’s quoting the Jack Nicholson Joker. I don’t buy it, sorry. (Also, just the simple act of making references to other, better stories has never impressed me much. The movies I respect most are able to end on an original line, rather than a movie quote. Sorry!)
· The tone of the movie is an absolute disaster. If you’re making a black comedy, it’s certainly possible to get people to laugh at death scenes – the more cartoonish, the better even. What you can’t do, as failed black comedies as bad as Very Bad Things and as interesting as Smokin’ Aces have proved, is suddenly switch gears and ask an audience to lament a character’s death. It doesn’t work. If you’ve been laughing at deaths for two hours, you can’t suddenly be asked to cry over a single death. Kick-Ass begins with a comedic set-piece that sets the movie’s tone – we’re going to see people die in this movie, and we have permission to laugh about it. Again, that’s no problem in itself – but it does change the stakes significantly. We’re not going to worry about the safety of Dave Lizewski and his friends the same way we might care about what happens to Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne and the people they care about. And we’re not going to be moved by the eventual death of any character in the movie, even if it’s one of the more likable ones. (But also realize — if death is at stake, we’re also not going to care much about Three’s Company subplots.) Movies end, that’s what they do. These characters aren’t real – we just enter into a pact with the filmmakers to pretend to care as if they are. That pact is different depending on whether the movie is a comedy or a drama, and further, on whether or not the comedy is a black comedy. For example, an audience is not going to be affected by the possibility of Major Kong’s death in Dr. Strangelove, the way that they might by the possibility of Dr. Venkman’s death in Ghostbusters. These aren’t topics that you as the audience need to consider, but they are definitely concepts that it’s Matthew Vaughn’s job to understand, and on the basis of Kick-Ass, I’d say that he doesn’t.
· Finally, to all those who were somehow impressed by SPOILER ALERT the climactic jetpack scene, I only have two words for you: Weng Weng.
I’m going to stop there because that’s more than enough ammo for debate. I really didn’t enjoy writing this piece, because I wanted to like this movie. I paid twelve bucks to see it just like most of the rest of you; I went out to the theater in the rain; and I was actually excited when the feature started. I never go to the theater hoping that the movie will be bad. I’d love to be writing a glowing review right now – I really would – but I can’t, because the movie is not good. Kick-Ass is a major missed opportunity and a significant disappointment, and unless Hugh Jackman quickly puts out another Wolverine movie or Michael Bay craps out another Transformers, then it’s an early contender for the worst movie of the year. Without a doubt, it’s already the most overrated.
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