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Taking Names and Chewing Geek Gum: Kick-Ass

Few films can walk the comic book walk and chew genre gum at the same time. Kick-Ass does that - and a lot, lot more.


Kick-Ass

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong
Rated: R
Studio: Lionsgate
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-08-03
UK date: 2010-08-03
Website

Yes, it's got an underage girl spouting the "C" word and destroying human life with wanton, carefree cruelty. Indeed, it's narrative is derived from the wish fulfillment world of comic book geekdom. Throughout the course of its lightning quick running time, the F-bomb is dropped as often as gallons of blood are spilled (and there are copious amounts of arterial - and artillery - spray here) and while more assured than ever, director Matthew Vaughn still seems a few steps behind solid action artisans like Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan. No, the reason the Spring smash Kick-Ass works (new to DVD and Blu-ray), in spite of what some might see are several limitations, is its relentless desire to entertain. That it does so, unabashedly, remains its greatest, most gratifying asset.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a funny book fan so obsessed with the derring-do inherent in each four panel storyboard that he decides to become a superhero in real life. Donning a green wetsuit and calling himself "Kick-Ass", his first foray into crime fighting does not go as planned. A quick trip to the hospital and he's back in green, getting involved in all manner of street skirmishes. While this impresses his buddies - and a girl he has a crush on - it angers local mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). That's because his lackeys have been telling him of a masked crusader that is stealing his drugs and undermining his crime ring. Turns out, Dave is not the only one playing costumed vigilante. A father/daughter duo tagged "Hit-Girl" (Chloë Moretz) and "Big Daddy" (Nicolas Cage) are out to resolve their own personal vendetta with the villain, dragging Dave and D'Amico's son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) directly into harm's way.

Some have called it the rise of "Nerd Porn" - though why the dork would deny the ready availability of actual XXX material for something like Superman makes little sense - while a few have faulted the video game for bringing us to this point in the motion picture process. There has also been the baseless suggestion that something as clearly fictional as Kick-Ass is harmful to its intended audience, from the copycat call it might inspire to the ultra-violence circumstances little grade-schooler Hit-Girl. Aside from the movie's obvious attributes (the thorough and purposeful deconstruction of the cinematic superhero mythos), there's been too much talk about what it purports to be and what it really is. Like over thinking a rollercoaster, or questioning the value of a frosty chocolate milkshake on a hot Summer's day, Kick-Ass merely strive to live up to its title: as entertainment, as a cinematic sort, and as a reaction to recent Tinseltown trends.

Movies like this (and the upcoming Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, for that matter) function on an old formula, one few film fans really ever recognize as instrumental to their success. Like Disney did with his fantasy get-away theme parks, these films function as full blown, fully immersive fun house attractions. We get a storyline, a set-up, a series of possible pay-offs, and the sensory overload exploration of each one. Along the way, recognizable character types are tweaks, identifiable archetypes are referenced and reworked, boundaries of believability are pushed, and everyone walks out feeling stretched and satisfied. Leaving Matthew Vaughn's comic book cavalcade is a lot like walking out of The Haunted Mansion or The Jungle Cruise. You knew what to expect, but then got a helluva lot more than you bargained for.

Here, when we first see Hit-Girl interacting with her dad, the setting may seem strange (an abandoned bit of factory). The minute he pulls out a gun and shoots her in the chest, the impending gag is meant to challenge our preconceived genre ideas. Then director Vaughn pushes the moment even further, turning it into the standard parent/child bargaining with a pistol as the mediator. Similarly, when Dave finally gets a chance to hook up with desired gal pal Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), it's as much for his stance as a victim of crime as the gender-bending belief she has re: how it happened (hint - it has something to do with being 'gay'). By readjusting the standards of the superhero archetype, by mixing authenticity with a clear nod to the needs of the category, the film feels both fresh and familiar. Then Vaughn gets to step in and put his own particular spin on the cinematic strategies.

It also helps that the actors find a way to make their often unrealistic characters click with emotional resonance. Cage is particularly good, going back to the good guy goofball mode he perfected in Raising Arizona and Peggy Sue Got Married. He turns Big Daddy into a hellion with the heart of a lion. His work here is so honest and truthful that it helps explain (and in some ways, excuse) Ms. Moretz's psycho in training, Hit-Girl. As the most controversial player in the entire company, too much attention is paid to her martial artistry and fire armed combat. Instead, the underage actress is so believable as the butt-kicking cherub that you almost forget she's a little girl - lethal, but still very, very small. Perhaps most surprisingly, British thesp Aaron Johnson is a decent naive nebbish, embodying the aura of adolescent invincibility so well that his Dave Lizewski often looks like he could actually pull off the comic to community transition.

The rest of Kick-Ass is solid is supporting this main contingent. Even the artist formerly known as 'McLovin' gets his moment in the sinister sun (as well as sequel potential) - which brings us back to an intriguing question: can a minor hit mandate more installments. Even though it seemed to have everything a 17-and-under thrills and spills desperate demo would eat up like a plate of cold Pizza Rolls, the movie didn't make the mint everyone thought. Instead, it delivered a decent return and then sunk back into the system, one day to be rediscovered and converted into an honest to goodness cult. The recently released DVD/Blu-ray will help that cause, especially considering the wealth of bonus features (commentary, comic to film comparisons, etc) that can aid in such an appreciation.

Even those who want to undermine the movie by claiming it's aimed at a gamer's mentality (apparently, the new catch-all for a specific, unexplainable cinematic phenomenon) have a hard time completely thwarting its effectiveness. Yes, Kick-Ass wallows in the joys of hormonally charged juvenilia a little too often, and by the time our champions are taking on D'Amico in his fancy high rise penthouse, we're back to a standard popcorn experience. But if you dig beneath the surface, if you recognize what Vaughn is doing with the formula, you'll see how sly and subversive it becomes. Few films can walk the comic book walk and chew genre gum at the same time. Kick-Ass does that - and a lot, lot more.

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