Sunday, May 2, 2010

Nothing better than a lack of a clever headline

Kick Ass [****]

I find in “Stardust” director Matthew Vaughn’s frankly excellent “Kick Ass” a cinematic cousin to Jody Hill’s “Observe and Report” and not because they indulge in some pretty awesome violence that is, in at least two instances, a gut punch in its shocking-ness but also because both films exist in a world that is a little south of reality where the unhinged are not only not particularly well reigned in but that they’re the self-appointed guardians of our virtue. To be fair, the crazy dedication that Rogen and Cage display in their respective films is rooted in failure (one is too unhinged to be a cop, the other a disgraced former one) and it brings a touching vulnerability to the cracked personas that choose, and frankly it is a crazy choice, to don a costume and mete out justice with no regard for rules or the comfort of standing on the right side of the line. You might wonder if I think that all cops and good Samaritans are crazy and I don’t but there are obvious breaks in the realities of these two characters so it makes it kind of sad, kind of scary and dangerous and shocking. If you’re wondering whether I think Batman is crazy, I guess I do, but he’s also more popular and rooted in popular culture in a way that is undeniable. The folks of “Kick Ass” can, in my estimation, have the benefit of being treated like regular people despite their arsenal because one guy gets beat up a lot and when Big Daddy, Hit Girl and Kick Ass aren’t wearing their costumes they are infinitely more normal than a millionaire playboy with a death wish and advanced research and development on his side.

“Kick Ass” is on the one hand an origin story for our title character, but it begins in media res for our father-daughter duo and their paths eventually converge when Kick Ass, who is performing heroics by request via My Space, decides to take on the junkie/drug dealers harassing his love interest/fag hag (she thinks Kick Ass’ alter ego is gay and this mission is clandestine) and Hit Girl shows up to save him because he’s overzealous and undertough. Dave Lizewski/Kick Ass (Aaron Johnson) decides on a whim that he wants to be a superhero and invests in a yellow and green scuba suit, practices pithy one-liners and pulling out a pair of sticks that suggest he means business and then finally standing up for the downtrodden and beaten upon. Ass’ first foray into hero-dom is met with only a marginal degree of ass beating and a maximum degree of internet phenomenery, but his second attempt, this time against the thieves that regularly rob him and a friend ends with a knife to the gut and a nice little roll over the hood of a car. If you felt inclined to believe this would be the end of KA’s heroic jaunts no one would blame you, but the resultant steel pins and extensive surgeries make him feel tougher and more Wolverine-esque so he has a psychotic break and says “I’m doing it again.”

Big Daddy and Hit Girl (Nicolas Cage, Chloe Grace Moretz) are a father-daughter team who have made it their mission to eliminate the crime boss who wrecked Daddy’s life when he refused to join his payroll, and as I said before their interests eventually converge with Kick Ass, they’re a more deadly and experienced team. Their relationship as regular people is both touching and hilariously vulgar: she swears like a sailor and her father dotes on her, but he gets really confused when she acts her age and talks about puppies and stuff. She’s only kidding though, she probably thinks that being a girl is for fags anyway. The relationship between Hit Girl and Big Daddy is part of the reason the stakes in the film feel so high, they love each other and can function normally, but there’s a crazy and overwhelming compulsion to fight a war that already took away everything you had once before and is likely to do it again. Kick Ass also has a similar relationship to his own father and Mark Strong’s villain has a relationship with his son and they all suggest unconditional love but espouse different degrees of communication: Hit Girl and Big Daddy share everything they’re a team, the villain shields his son from what he does for most of the movie and Kick Ass’ father notices his son has blossomed out of his shell but their routine is predicated on extended silences at the dinner table followed by the occasional uber-mundane observation. That the mothers are peripheral characters in the film, when they are present at all, speaks to the idea that without a feminine guiding voice we are truly lost souls and perhaps even that the city itself is the mother that birthed us and it must be protected at all costs. I guess when one finds their self on the villainous side of the equation, we must acknowledge that the mother was ineffectual and as she abandoned us we abandon our desire to be good.

This, of course, leaves us with Hit Girl who is the film’s lone female character of import. Roger Ebert was morally outraged, in his review of Kick Ass a few weeks ago, at the site of a child murdering bad guys and also being subsequently beaten herself during the film’s final showdown. For starters, she doesn’t get beaten that bad. I just want to say that even in all seriousness there are worse acts of violence perpetrated on children in movies and on TV every day. Hit Girl also, at least, for about two thirds of the film exists on a different plane than the other characters. She’s bonding with her dad, she’s not inundated with the same trauma as he is. She’s been interpolated by him, yes, but she’s like a preternaturally gifted athlete. The carnage around her is CGI blood, she’s an awesome and amusing site. She’s played with warmth and humor and spunk. While I’m not one to shit on someone’s opinion (particularly because in a bonafide verbal confrontation they’d clean my proverbial clock,maybe even my verbal, biological and evolutionary ones too, who knows?) I am calling bullshit on Mr. Ebert here. However, there is a moment when the film begins to perform a disservice to the character.

As the third act of “Kick Ass” begins a shocking event transpires that changes Hit Girl’s relationship to the film. Gone should be the goofy soundtrack choices that tell you “look this little girl is whooping people’s asses isn’t this funny” but after giving her a seriously great take no prisoners moment set to Ennio Morricone’s theme to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” argue for its overuse taking the piss out of a moment if you want to but that doesn’t negate how perfect a soundtrack choice it is (one of two in the film), it fails to treat the character with the gravity afforded Big Daddy and Kick Ass. I don’t like the movie any less for this flaw but I wish it had done right by the character in those moments.

Fittingly enough, as our flaws and damages contribute to our want and need to be a hero this slight misstep only magnifies the excellence of everything else that surrounds it. “Kick Ass” is seriously ballsy and unforgettable and I think summer is going to have to work overtime this year.

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