Movie Review: Kick-Ass

This movie is a great opportunity for a reviewer to work in a snappy pull-from quote into the article, something like, “The name of the movie is Kick-Ass, and this movie definitely did just that!” or “For a movie called Kick-Ass, it didn’t kick much ass, and believe me, my ass is huge and used to punishment!”  Honestly, I think there is a very earnest part of this movie that is trying for that sort of early summer movie blockbuster-y feel.  But when I looked at the mostly vacant opening night stadium seating at the Grove in Hollywood, I began to question who the target audience of this movie really is.  It’s a comic-book movie, there’s no doubt about that, and the constant allusions to other major franchises like Spider-Man and Batman make it clear beyond a doubt that Kick-Ass wants to be considered amongst the upper echelon of comic book cinematic geekfests, as opposed to say The Spirit (though there is a pretty good Spirit dig by way of a marquee in the background in one of the shots).  The tongue-in-cheek nature of the dialog and the all-too-oddball characters often raise the stakes of the satire to a near parodic level of comedy, likewise raising the question of whether Kick-Ass is a send-up or authentically original source material.  There are enough cool moments to vie for its claim to originality, but all the characters are by design and self-reference alone a series of formally bastardized concepts utilized to satirize the tropes and ridiculous stakes at hand in real comic book fiction.  If Kick-Ass is a parody, it’s attempting to be a parody of comic books in general, rather than any particular one. But the near constant references to the Spider-Man franchise by the titular hero Kick-Ass alone, not to mention the fact that director Matthew Vaughn seems all-too willing to steal visual queues from his successful predecessors, raises the question of whether Kick-Ass has enough original content to serve an audience as memorable pop culture, or whether it’s simply a mixtape of the most likable geek moments of the past decade.

Kick-Ass finds strength in a factor that is rarely present in most superhero films: Its sense of humor.  There is a broad but dark sense of humor at play in Kick-Ass, and everything from Nicholas Cage’s purposefully stilted delivery of dialog to the sheer vulgarity and inexplicable extremity of the violence involved serve to both heighten and exaggerate the relatively limited stakes proposed at the movie’s offset.  When Kick-Ass the character decides to become a superhero, there is little indication that things will escalate to the Kill Bill style slaughterfest they become by the 3/4 point of this movie.  And maybe that’s some of the problem tonally.  While everything in this movie is semi-sincere within the constraints of its own universe, there is a marked comic-booky, childlike innocence that abounds throughout the film, both underscoring and comedically undermining the violence at hand.  Because the main character’s voice-over narration literally references movies we’ve seen before in the same genre with the same exact themes, at times taking careful note to parody key moments of dialog from other franchises, it’s hard to believe its sense of innocence as anything short of facsimile.  If anything, the teenager portions of Kick-Ass seem wiped squeaky clean and free of any real bite.  For a movie so willing to take risks with its audience in terms of allowing an adolescent girl to spit vulgarities and slice people’s throats by the barrelful, there are relatively few risks when it comes to portraying a normal teenage life.  Maybe the only thing missing from Kick-Ass is the willingness to poke fun at human beings in a realistic way, outside of jackass friends and masturbation jokes.  The love story in Kick-Ass is just as shallow, if not moreso than the love story in Spider-Man, missing a much-needed opportunity to provide a look at real love within a comic book universe rather than a completely flaccid one-sided snorefest.

And I think that’s my major problem with Kick-Ass in general.  It takes careful time to pull its punches.  Not only is it a very funny, very solid movie, but it also had the opportunity to be the be-all end-all comic book geek movie, especially in a post-Watchmen era of cinema.  Rather than owning up to that masterful opportunity, Kick-Ass would rather establish itself as its own little franchise, making its existence all the more redundant.  There’s nothing really wrong with Kick-Ass as a movie, but there’s not a lot to write home about either.  The ending is about as corny as you can get without giving it a piano bar dance sequence.  The real problem is that from a screenplay standpoint, the movie starts with a vaguely believable portrayal of teenage life and is immediately juxtaposed against a barely believable yet wholly endearing introduction of tweenage merry murderess Hit Girl and her father, played by Nicholas Cage (Wicker Man, Ghost Rider).  When the universes finally collide, it’s clear that Kick-Ass is wholly less interesting than either of his counterparts, enough so that the only nemesis they can muster to fight him is played by Superbad’s McLovin.  Again, is McLovin funny as the character, or is it funny because McLovin is trying to play a superhero?  It’s hard to tell, and that strange sense of awkward sincerity permeates Kick-Ass inside and out.  In a way similar to Zombieland, it’s so unclear whether the laziness is intentional, accidental or just part of the fun that you sort of get lost in the madness and just try to enjoy the ride.  There’s no point in fighting against Kick-Ass once you’re already in the seat, at least as long as you’re not expecting to see anything new.

I would recommend Kick-Ass as a visually stirring and interestingly shot superhero splatterfest.  The dialog is very funny, and many of the costumes and set-pieces are enough to elicit laughter from even the hardest heart.  Nicholas Cage is a walking joke, in every possible meaning of that expression.  The sheer fact that the film is this funny does raise the question of why it needed to earn its R-rating so violently, as there is plenty of room in tone alone for small children to enjoy this picture.  In my screening, there were five or six kids who would have definitely been deemed “too young” by the MPAA, but by the same token, these kids left the theater the most excited of any of us.  Maybe that was the product of the violent video-game like imagery, the onslaught of movie theater sugary snacks, and a lifetime of ADHD, but my guess is that to a kid, this story is no more violent than the average comic book, Japanese manga, or for that matter Harry Potter.  It’s just strange that this movie’s R-rating exists as this Joe Camel-like enticement, a golden yellow police-line around an adults-only movie.  Kids are the ones who could really appreciate this movie, in spite of the violence inherent in the premise, and I think I’d rather have them watch this than Clash of the Titans.  Frankly I’d rather have my kids grow up to be sociopathic rogue vigilantes, fighting for justice and truth against all odds, not some beef-headed wannabe god who spends his days spanking scorpions in the desert. But that’s just me, and to each his own when it comes to training kids.  In all honesty, I think Kick-Ass is a lot of fun and I wish it had been a little bit smarter, but that’s truly splitting hairs.  The movie is a violent journey with a lot of strange and cool scenery, just don’t expect to come back any smarter than when you left.

GRADE:  B+

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