Friday, April 23, 2010

Movie Review: Kick-Ass

Coming to you straight form the fevered brain of 'Civil War' writer Mark Millar, it's the latest Hollywood comic book blockbuster, Kick-Ass. But does it, in fact, kick ass? Or is this the most ironic comic movie title since Warner Brothers asked empty theaters who was watching the Watchmen?

Before I get into my review, in the interest of full disclosure I should reveal that I have not read the Kick-Ass comic book due mainly to the fact that I think Mark Millar is a smug, self-satisfied douche. Granted, I don't actually know the man, but that's the impression his work gives off (and interviews seem to reinforce); when you read most of his works you can almost hear his inner monologue saying, "Damn, I'm good." But I heard a lot of positive buzz from the comics community leading up to the release of Kick-Ass, so I figured I would give it a shot. Plus, it's directed by Matthew Vaughn, who did the mostly awesome Layer Cake, which certainly is a vote in its favor.

So was my largesse rewarded? Well, let's start with the positive: Kick-Ass is an entertaining movie. Despite being (like most comic book movies) a bit overlong, to the tune of 20 minutes or so, the action moves pretty rapidly and there are jokes and bits of fanboy humor liberally mixed in to the plot. On a purely visceral level, then, if you want to shut off your brain and see some ass-kicking at the movies, Kick-Ass definitely delivers.

On the down side, if you do want to use your brain, there are going to be some problems, namely with the basic premise of the movie. Kick-Ass purports, according to King Millar himself, to be a modern superhero story -- an examination of what would happen if people in the real world decided to try being superheroes. And for the first half hour or so of the movie, it does a pretty good -- and entertaining -- job of presenting this, as the main character (codename: Kick-Ass)gets pummeled into near-oblivion several times in a very real-world fashion.

Unfortunately, however, the film then introduces a second storyline involving two other erstwhile superheroes, Hit Girl and Big Daddy, which causes problems for three reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, these two are actual superheroes, meaning they show an inhuman ability to kill people and defeat evil far above and beyond what is even remotely likely in any kind of "real world" situation; their presence inherently undermines what was supposed to be the entire point of the movie. Which leads right into the second problem, which is structural; the jokey, realistic treatment of the main character and his geeky friends feels like an entirely different film from everything that happens when Hit Girl is on screen, which leads to some jarring transitions between the two tonally different plotlines. But the third, and most important problem is this: Hit Girl and her conventional superhero story arc are both vastly more interesting and compelling than Kick-Ass and the main storyline.

As you might imagine, that's kind of an issue. If the entire movie had just been Kick-Ass and his cronies, the movie would have been basically a quirky, fun indie character study. But Hit Girl belongs to an amped up action movie; and once she debuts, the rest of the Kick-Ass sequences basically become periodic drags as you wait for Hit Girl to come back on screen. Both characters would have been better served, it seems, if they had been put into two different films.

There are other minor issues, of course. The fact that the most interesting character is a foul-mouthed, murdering pre-teen girl raises some interesting ethical and moral questions, but since all of these are completely ignored, for the most part she seems kind of like a cheap shock stunt. And for all the lip service paid to being realistic and getting away from the classic comic book fanboy wish fulfillment that classic superheroes embody, the relationship between Kick-Ass and his love interest has a twist partway through the film that turned it into maybe the biggest and most ridiculous fanwank male sexual fantasy sequence I have ever had the misfortune of seeing. Honestly, it's so boggling I swear a 13 year old wrote the supplot.

All told, then, despite some interesting and memorable characters and a relatively fun mix of humor and action, in the end Kick-Ass seems a lot like most of Millar's stuff: it talks big but has its head so far up its own ass it can't recognize its own bullshit.

My Grades: A- when you walk out of the theater, C- five minutes later and for the rest of your life.

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