FILM REVIEW: Kick-Ass (2010)

Kick-Ass (USA, 2010)
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse

Comic book adaptations come in a cycle of 'light' and 'dark' phases. Every period of films which takes its characters and settings seriously is eventually followed by a camper, sillier phase, and vice versa. Batman went from a camp TV series to the dark and edgy Tim Burton films, then back to high camp with Joel Schumacher, and is now firmly rooted in darkness under the guidance of Christopher Nolan.

Kick-Ass, however, breaks this cycle, marrying the dark, moody and intense side of comics with a knowing earthiness and its tongue firmly in its cheek. These conflicting elements are held together by memorable performances and Matthew Vaughn's striking visuals, creating a film which truly and madly lives up to its name.In the space of ten years, Matthew Vaughn has gone from a nameless, also-ran producer to one of the most exciting directors working today. Having cut his teeth producing Guy Ritchie's first films, he made his directorial debut with Layer Cake, a flashy but ultimately empty-headed gangster film. Having dropped out of directing the third X-Men film, he really found his feet with Stardust, a genuinely great family fantasy which didn't take itself too seriously. And now we have Kick-Ass, a feisty oddball of a film which is without question his best work to date.Where some adaptations have simply lifted out the characters and put them awkwardly into the real world, Kick-Ass lives and breathes the comic-book universe. The film is dripping with pastiches or parodies of superheroes, and no character is left either unscathed or un-subverted. On the one hand, we have overt discussions about different characters- for instance, Dave's monologue about the difference between Spiderman and Peter Parker ("Spiderman gets the girl" - or not). On the other hand, we have the extended sequence of Nic Cage donning the Big Daddy outfit. The scene of him painting black make-up over his eyes is a crafty nod towards Tim Burton's Batman, since Michael Keaton underwent the same procedure when putting on the batsuit.

But although it's a film with such an encyclopaedic knowledge of comic books, you don't have to be Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino to enjoy Kick-Ass. What makes the film so refreshing is its total refusal to take itself too seriously. It offers enough darkness and substance to satisfy the Nolan-ites and Burton-ians, but it never risks becoming alienating or self-absorbed in a manner that encumbered Sin City. The action sequences are shot with great alacrity and are inventively choreographed, being every bit as exciting as the battle scenes in a Zhang Zimou film.If there is a phrase to sum up Kick-Ass, that phrase would be: 'knowing fun'. The familiar elements of both the plot and the characters are clear to see up on the screen; we've lost count of the number of films about gangsters being taken on by masked vigilantes. The film is clearly aware of the power and prestige of the best comic-book works, but it also knows how hard it is to get those films right.

There is a real sense of relish in the way that the film tackles the clichés of the superhero film and completely subverts and twists them for its own amusement. If the film had been made by Frank Miller or Zack Snyder, the central premise of ordinary people trying to become superheroes would have been treated so portentously it would have been dull. Vaughn cuts through all their pseudo-intellectual claptrap, providing us with simple, laugh-out-loud answers to the central character's questions. Put simply, you wouldn't dress up in a suit and go out and fight crime, not because it's morally ambiguous, but because you'd look ridiculous and get your ass kicked.The film situates the superhero story in a completely contemporary parallel universe, and brings the different components of these stories bang up to date. Why would you waste your time running around answering distress calls from people in the street, when it's much easier for said people to send you emails? Why would you drive a massively conspicuous Batmobile, when a souped-up Mustang will do just as well? Touches like this are the nub of what Kick-Ass is: an affectionately savage satire of all things comic-book, with a dark but playful sense of humour.

There is a natural comparison between Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, since both films were developed at the same time as the comics which spawned them. Both films are visually outstanding, and both take a familiar romantic storyline and inject new life into it through a number of bold creative decisions. But in terms of their purpose, they couldn't be more different. Where Scott Pilgrim sought to charm you and make you chuckle at what unfolds, Kick-Ass asks a lot more of its audience, and the laughter comes tinged with a number of tough scenes.There are a number of scenes in Kick-Ass which are difficult to sit through, even for people who are well-versed in comic-book violence. For the most part the violent scenes are decidedly tongue-in-cheek, and the film doesn't linger unduly on any of the violent acts dealt towards the characters. That said, the scenes of Kick-Ass and Big-Daddy being tied to a chair and beaten to within an inch of their lives is very full-on. These scenes take the Joker's videotape in The Dark Knight and take it to the next level through a few gallons of blood and interesting camerawork.

The film has caused controversy because to its violence and foul language, including a now-infamous section of Chloe Moretz' character saying the 'c' word. As before, most of the violence is clearly comic-book: characters can get hurt and do die, but the film does not ask its audience to enjoy their pain, nor does it rely upon this level of engagement to make the lighter parts work. The violence towards Hit-Girl is carefully choreographed with all the power in the suggestion rather than the action; like Psycho and Alien before it, Kick-Ass works by making us think something has happened and then letting the emotional response play out.As for the language, that is largely indicative of the film's bad taste sensibility; Peter Bradshaw memorably described it as "an explosion in a bad-taste factory". The film makes no bones about its less politically correct scenes, mainly involving Nic Cage and his obsession with weaponry. Because the film was financed independently, it can get away with scenes that would never survive the test screenings of a modern blockbuster. The opening scene, which parodies the Spiderman series, sets the tone for the rest of the film, and there is no attempt made to sanitise Kick-Ass' circumstances for the sake of broader appeal. Even if the end result is not entirely to our liking, the film at least deserves some praise for having the balls to attempt such scenes in the first place.Moreover, the full-on and bloodier scenes in Kick-Ass are counterbalanced by the development of the central character. Like Scott Pilgrim the film is on one level a coming-of-age story; where the 1980s had John Hughes, our generation has comics. The central romance between Dave and Katie feels genuine, as do Dave's circle of friends who derive endless pleasure from Katie's misunderstands about his sexuality. The near-pantomime performances of Nic Cage and Mark Strong are balanced out by solid turns from Aaron Johnson and Chloe Moretz. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is also enjoyable, so much so that we almost forgive him for Superbad.Kick-Ass is one of the best films of 2010 and is destined, like Scott Pilgrim, for cult status. Its uncompromising approach to both content and characters is refreshing in an age where so many similarly-styled films are unfairly watered-down. Its visuals are striking, its action is superb, its dialogue is witty and it's immensely good fun. Only time will tell as to its overall impact on trends in comic book adaptations, but it has laid down the gauntlet for The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. Until then, it should be embraced as a dark-humoured celebration of comics which is a jagged-edged joy to behold.

Rating: 4.5/5

Verdict: A bona fide comic book classic


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