Behold the wonder that is Kick-Ass.
This is the kind of film that everyone says cannot be made by the Hollywood system. And they’re right, in a sense. Matthew Vaughn could have never have gotten it off the ground under the eyes of a major studio, and he had to find independent financing to make it. But once it was made, once people saw just how brazenly brilliant the final product is, it got its marketing and it got its wide distribution. So good ole American Hollywood can put out something like Kick-Ass, in a round-a-bout way.
And thank God for that. What Vaughn and company have created is a cinematic pipe bomb so fearless, so confident, so shocking, and so bravely flaunting of Hollywood’s two-faced moral system that its very existence is something of a miracle. You just don’t see films like this coming. They come out of nowhere, a two-by-four to the side of the head, but once they land they’re around to stay for a very long time. This is a brutal send-off to the superhero film, not so much a dissection of the genre as an outright disembowelment. It’s a sharp, highly fetishized look at what makes the superhero tick, even in a realistic world where don’t actually have superpowers, and while The Dark Knight may still hold the title of the greatest superhero film ever made, Kick-Ass may be the greatest film ever about superheroes.
Our story follows a teenager named Dave Lizewski, who really is your everyday teenager in a wonderfully realized sense. He’s geeky, but not a total nerd. He’s spry enough, but not real athletic. He’s smart, but not anywhere near brilliant. He can’t help but look down the shirt of his well-endowed English teacher and he’s not so much reviled by girls as completely invisible to them. Rising star Aaron Johnson (Nowhere Boy) makes his character compelling in a way few teen protagonists are these days. He isn’t whiny or overly angst-ridden, and Johnson strikes an excellent geek-appeal that instantly gets the audience on his side. In a film filled with uber-characters all too able to steal scenes, it would have been easy for Johnson to get lost in his own film. But he exudes an awkward movie-star charm reminiscent of a young Tom Cruise, and manages to hold the film amidst an array of high theatrics. He really is the average American teenage boy, and is as well-captured in that context as any budding teen hero I’ve ever seen in a film, even when he buys a scuba suit off the internet and makes himself into Kick-Ass. It’s this characterization that grounds the film in a believable and engaging reality. That, along with an opening shot of a crazy man in a bird suit leaping off a skyscraper to the cheers of onlookers…only to fall to his death.
Yes, this isn’t quite a ‘normal’ world. But then, is our world really ‘normal’? There are problems, there are bad guys, and Dave does possess something special that many could have but very few do…the will to actually do something about it. He’s perplexed that there aren’t real superheroes in the world, that there aren’t real people taking it upon themselves to do good. And isn’t he right to be perplexed? Isn’t it a shame that there aren’t real masked crime fighters, those possessing that special mix described by Dave as “optimism and naïveté”? Maybe so, but for a real superhero to come about and take to the streets in a costume and risk life and limb to deliver their own brand of justice, it also takes a dash of insanity. And that’s where the film really dives into this popular mythos…and that’s where Big Daddy and Hit Girl come in.
Nicholas Cage is having a nice little run right now. After his brilliant turn in Bad Lieutenant, he brings his special brand of ingratiating lunacy to the role of Damon Macready, AKA Big Daddy, a falsely imprisoned former cop who has taken to crime fighting as a means to exact revenge on mafia strong man Frank D’Amico for ruining his life and career. As Macready, he’s goofy and strangely humorous. As Big Daddy, he’s also goofy and strangely humorous, but with a penchant for dispatching bad guys with a brutal blend of knives, pistols, and shotguns. He is the mad-man superhero in the vein of Batman, but without the polish and with an even more palpable sense of unbalanced rage. His obsession and fury are enough for him to raise his daughter as a highly trained killing machine, established in the first scene in which we see them. Father talks lovingly to his daughter, makes sure her bullet-proof vest is on right, and shoots her square in the chest. Then takes her out for ice cream.
The result of this deranged upbringing is Hit Girl, a pint-sized angel of death who will no doubt endure as a cinematic icon, in no small part thanks to great work by young actress Chloe Morentz. The character is also what has brought out the morality police, given that she’s a near-sociopathic mass-murderer who’s been wired to view ghastly bloodshed as a game, so much so that she displays a childlike disbelief when she finally sees her own blood. And those naysayers would be right to be so appalled, if they weren’t viewing the character and the film in the wrong context. Hit Girl is the encapsulation of every subversive tick that brings people to the superhero genre. You want movies that pander sociopathic vigilante justice to children in the guise of elaborately costumed heroics? You want wildly exciting action that simplifies right and wrong to the extent that the violence becomes a philosophical parody of its own nature and motivations, which of course makes it easier for the intended teen audience to digest? Fine, that’s what you get in Hit Girl. But you get it in such a ghastly, shameless, and straight-up manner that it serves as a middle-finger to all the appetites that lead people to films like this (appetites that I myself most certainly share). Those appetites are natural, if sometimes too strong and too readily sated by modern culture, but it’s worthwhile to have them served up at face value. And that can be hard to watch, and many will certainly find the antics of Hit Girl a bit much to take. She hurls obscenities, slits throats, cuts off legs, and puts bullets through skulls with such dizzying frequency that it can feel like system shock, but the very fact that a film can cause that kind of shock in this age of hyper-edited overload is a feat in itself.
But this is a not a normal cinematic world, and Hit Girl is a not a normal little girl. She is, in a manner of speaking, off her fucking rocker. So is her father, and so is Kick-Ass to a lesser extent. In order for these people to suit up and take on the bad guys in the way that they do, they just have to be a tad bit insane, and it’s the inherent and somewhat troubling insanity of the superhero mythos that gives Kick-Ass its greatest and most subversive relevance. The world picture painted by the film, replete with modern tech-culture like YouTube, first-person shooter video games, and live streaming webcasts, is one where the embedded insanity and perverse hero complex within the genre are much more easily indulged. These superheroes buy their gear from eBay and communicate through MySpace, and the viral matrix of YouTube allows for a masked dweeb fighting off goon with batons to become an instant celebrity. It’s all just a little bit mad, isn’t it? Not the rise of a real superhero (that’s more believable), but the over-linked hysteria of our modern tech culture. And that’s the world where Kick-Ass exists, and it’s a world where the core lunacy is exactly the same as our own.
Crafting such a universe is the work of director Matthew Vaughn, the real star of the film. His first two directorial outings, Stardust and Layer Cake, showed promise, but here he shoots and gashes his way right to the A-List. He directs action scenes with virtuoso panache, hits some surprising notes of disturbed foreboding, and most important of all, manages the proceedings with enough humor and tongue-in-cheek self awareness to make it so much damn fun. He constantly throws the viewer off-balance, especially during Kick-Ass’s first attempted crime intervention where our would-be hero walks up to some thugs, talks a big heroic talk….then is promptly stabbed in the gut. It’s a brutal and shocking moment that pulls the rug out from the under the film’s superhero trappings, and it’s brilliant because from that point on, Vaughn can take the film anywhere he wants. And that’s just what he does, constantly doing what you know he should but don’t think he would, and that’s a large part of what it makes Kick-Ass so great. It’s fearless in a way free of pretense and designed first and foremost to thrill its audience. It goes places that films rarely go, and it always does so in service of its story.
Kick-Ass is that rare specimen, that special little movie that rises from the cinematic abyss and reminds you why film is such an exciting medium. So far, it’s the best film of 2010. Enthralling, shocking, horrifying, and every second entertaining, it may not end the traditional superhero genre, but it sure as hell has some nasty fun with it.