Sunday, April 18, 2010

It's an Early Summer Kick-Off: KICK-ASS

There’s a commercial for the new R-rated adaptation of Mark Millar’s superhero comic Kick-Ass that contains, among several sound-bites from “real” audience members exiting test screenings, a frothing fan who exclaims that she “never had so much fun watching the bad guys get slaughtered.” I cringe at that, not just because it shrieks of an unfortunate mindset, but because that’s precisely the kind of predicted attitude that causes the kind of moral outrage and hand-wringing that this film has prompted from a handful of critics and op-ed pieces, but to my eyes the film is no more violent and no more callous than countless other worse shoot-‘em-ups. Even among its R-rated comic book kin, Kick-Ass has violence a notch or two milder than Wanted (another Millar adaptation), or Sin City, or 300, or Watchmen. And it is certainly much less implicating in its violence than a first-person-shooter video game. Here, it’s presented with a somewhat more cartoony touch, though it’s still definitely R-rated. Besides, haven’t the kinds of people so willing to engage with their basest of instincts while watching a film always existed? And why should we condemn a film simply because of what some of its more reprehensible viewers might think?

A great deal of this outrage rests on the character Hit Girl, an 11-year-old girl who slices and dices her way through several bloody action set-pieces, which play like Kill Bill with a kid in the lead, and spouts off shocking profanity (the kind that isn’t even commonly shortened in polite society with dashes or a “-word” suffix) in exactly four lines. (Those lines are mostly just shock for shock’s sake). The sight of a grown man fighting a small girl is troubling and a little nerve-wracking, but the action sequences (especially the big climactic confrontation) are meant to be troubling and suspenseful, aren’t they? It’s strong and intense content, to be sure, and there’s some small dissonance in having such material layered underneath an occasionally snarky tone. There is a lot in the film that is played for laughs, even, yes, some of the violence, but I hardly think that the filmmakers intended for us to laugh at a bloodied child. If an audience laughs, which mine did not, there’s something wrong with them. In the final action scene, I was troubled and nervous because I cared about the character and her situation.

It’s hard to type out a defense of the film because I can understand the viewpoint of the outraged. I can understand, and even sympathize, with those who are troubled by the violence and the vulgarity and the age of this supporting character. But still, despite such justifiable qualms, I found myself enjoying the movie. As unsettling as it can be, I found myself the most uneasy about its themes and content only after the fact while trying to work out how I can bring together two opposing impulses: that I found the movie to be hugely entertaining and that I can see how the movie can be troubling. Ultimately, I think the movie is as slick and enjoyable as studio fare and yet it also plays with exuberance in the key of exploitation, by which I mean it’s a successful entertainment that’s also a bit of a live-wire.

The movie takes what is at this point a fairly routine superhero format and tweaks it into something approaching freshness. It features a bland geeky teen played by Aaron Johnson, who looks more or less like a cool kid, but is actually fully ignored by the majority of his schoolmates. It requires the same level of disbelief that we use when we agree to pretend that a rom-com’s gorgeous lead can’t get a date. Anyway, he decides to become a superhero, donning a scuba suit and a mask and calling himself Kick-Ass. Despite his quick fame, thanks to a viral video, he finds himself to be fairly inadequate, especially as he gets drawn into a plot involving a drug kingpin (Mark Strong) and his son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and father-daughter vigilantes who go by the names Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). The plot is complicated, but never dull. There’s energetic frankness (there’s plenty of jokes and conversations that wouldn’t be out of place in an Apatow film) and stylishness to the proceedings as director Matthew Vaughn (of Layer Cake and Stardust) keeps things whipped up into a hip frenzy. It’s his best work yet. Though the film’s often calculating, knowing exactly what blockbuster buttons to push, it’s never untrue to itself, even if it means getting in its own way.

The film seems to be a critique of fanboy culture, especially in the way these “superheroes” are quickly idolized and the way thousands will mindlessly devour real-life violence as their own entertainment. And yet, the film plays too well to fanboy culture to really be engaging in such a critique. While it’s nice that the action scenes are, for once, not totally chopped up into nearly unintelligible bits of motion, it’s too easy to see the moments where the audience is expected to see a flash of stylized gore as a cue to cackle. Still, the action is swift, exciting, and plenty fun, even as it borders on unsettling at times. (I think seeing it with a more bloodthirsty crowd would raise my uncomfortableness). Style and theme are at odds in ways that are difficult to disentangle. The film seems to point towards showing real consequences of comic-book violence, but then locates this theme in a stylized world.

In some ways, I resent the fact that the film has to be so controversial and thought-provoking, mostly through its lazily underdeveloped and conflicting themes, because my experience of actually watching the film was much more uncomplicated. For all of my post-screening intellectual consternation and racing, conflicting thoughts, as the film was unspooling I was having a blast. Vaughn doesn’t lean too heavily on any of the deeper meanings that are half-formed in the execution. The film settles for shrugging off any responsibility to be any kind of meditation on deeper themes and just shooting forward as a high-quality action film. This isn’t the kind of film that is filled up with indistinguishable action. The action sequences are well spaced. They have shape and stakes; each one is distinct and clearly defined. As the movie moves forward, the action beats build in impact on the plot and in the risk to the characters. By the time we reach the climax, the action has reached a roaring crescendo.

In addition to the speed and style and great action of the film, what carried me through, and kept the outlandish violence from overwhelming the fairly light tone, was the cast. The actors are able and ready to balance the tones of the film and it’s because of them that I actually cared about the characters. The adults put in good work. Mark Strong plays his gangster with the right amounts of threatening machismo and self-conscious caricature. Nicolas Cage is strange and scary, sweet and suspect, funny and indelible, the qualities he can always bring to a role when allowed. Yet the film is carried by its younger stars. Aaron Johnson gives the kind of performance that feels naturally stylized. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is fast becoming one of our greatest character actors. And young Chloe Grace Moretz handles her rough role with a certain grace and cheerfulness that almost – almost – counterbalances her role’s edginess without trampling either the sweet little girl or the inherent tragedy of being essentially brainwashed into becoming a tool of revenge. I found myself genuinely caring about these characters, especially Cage and Moretz who have a moment of emotion late in the film that felt genuinely touching.

Once I realized the movie wasn’t going to provoke my sense of moral indignation, I enjoyed it as an accomplished and solid trashy blockbuster. It’s smoothly raucous and randy, and even has a few genuine surprises in its plotting. It’s not too all tastes, and though I understand the objections some have to the content, and really, the movie leaves itself open to such objections by having confused themes, I can’t deny the entertaining rush of energy the film supplied. I found the film exciting and enjoyable. I have to admit that the finale even left me charged up for a sequel. It’s energetic and explosive and, to quote the immortal Henry Higgins, it’s “so deliciously low.”

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