It’s time to get bad guys.
Thirteen months ago, a little low-budget, under-the-radar film came out about people who dressed up like superheroes to fight crime. It was best known for the naked blue supergod and lack of giant squid. It was called… Race to Witch Mountain! I mean, Watchmen! The point is, Watchmen is perhaps the ultimate story of normal individuals turning to the caped crusaders of comic books to do what they wish they could do in their everyday lives. It’s no surprise, then, that Watchmen the comic book can been see in Kick-Ass, on the bedside of the protagonist while he is in the hospital after his first attempt at being a superhero ends with stab wounds and severe hemorrhaging.
Based on the recently completed comic, Kick-Ass focuses on a normal teenage kid named Dave (Aaron Johnson) who asks himself that prolific question: Why aren’t there any super heroes? When his friends’ logical answers don’t appease him, Dave does the only reasonable thing by altering a scuba suit, wrapping pipes with duct tape and becoming a super hero himself under the self-explaining name of Kick-Ass. While his first encounter with the scum of New York was less-than-desirable (hence the stab wounds and the hospital visit), his next fight for justice gets him on the news (and YouTube) and word spreads like wildfire. When another masked crime fighter (who resembles the Dark Knight) starts taking vengeance out on the mafia, the local king pin (Mark Strong) decides Kick-Ass is the source and puts a bounty on his head.
Before saying anything about my own experience of the film, I need to discuss the changes from books to film because, to be quite frank, there were a lot. Now, I personally still have not read the books (they’re on my ever expanding list), but my good friend Gene is a big fan and I had a nice big discussion with him after watching the film about what was different from the books. Turns out, there’s a lot! Whole parts of the plot are distorted. An once major twist is revealed almost immediately in the storyline. One of the main characters’ motivations take a 360 and it makes a difference to the motivations of another character in the last 30 minutes of the movie and to the film in whole. The ending itself has been completely changed; without giving too much away, the ending is actually not nearly as dark as the original material.
There were also a few moments that seemed so over-the-top that I assumed it was a part of the books, but Gene has assured me that it was simply written for the film. Example: there is a plot point that works like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction; the characters are in awe of it, but the audience doesn’t know what it is for the majority of the movie. Unlike in Pulp Fiction, the object is finally revealed in the final battle and when it is, the audience has a “what the heck” sort of moment. I really felt like it had to be in the book because it was such a weird choice, but alas, it was a change. It was shocking to me that the adaptation was so drastically different from the book, especially since I was lead to believe the book’s creators and the screenwriters worked hand in hand. My only guess is that because the script and the comic itself were developed at the same time (the last issue of the series was only released January of this year), the filmmakers had to take multiple creative liberties to make up for uncertainties in the plot. It’s almost a different story altogether. Because I have not personally read the series, I can’t say that all the changes were unnecessary or even for the worse. Still, any film adaptation has to be rated partially on how it keeps true to the source and such obtuse differences need to be noted, especially for fans of the comics.
Now that all that is out of the way, there are some great aspects of this movie. The characters and their actors are strong, to be sure. Dave as a character is a good mix of relatable protagonist and realistic teenager. He is fixated with the female anatomy, especially that of his English teacher and of Katie, the hottest girl in school. He admits to the audience that besides being nerdy with his friends, his favorite pastime is fantasizing about these two ladies and watching porn. Still, of the four “superheroes” of the film, Dave has the purest intentions. While having control of his own destiny and feeling fulfilled is a part of it, his biggest reason for becoming a costumed crusader is to help people (like his friends) who being pushed around by bullies, large and small. He sees one too many adults turn the other way when they should help. Besides his talent of being able to take a massive beating and live, his biggest asset when fighting crime is that he doesn’t give up. His second try at fighting crime is successful because, despite being outnumbered by armed thugs, he assures his enemy that he will not stop. Much of the character’s likablility comes from Johnson’s performance. His narration is strong as well. You really feel like he’s talking to you face-to-face.
Christopher Mintz-Plasse of Superbad fame plays Red Mist, another superhero with the “Bruce Wayne” family money to supply his alter ego with an expensive costume and super cool car. Unlike Dave, his intentions are not nearly so pure of heart, but you understand why he does what he does. While it’s not his first movie since Superbad, this feels like Zombieland for Abigail Breslin; it’s the film that takes him to the next step in his career. In some ways, it’s the same for Nicholas Cage, who plays Big Daddy, the superhero going after the mob. It just might redeem him from some of his lesser works of the past ten years and it’s up there for me as one of his best performances. His costume is inspired by Batman (its referenced several times), but there’s a big difference between Batman and Big Daddy; while Batman only subdues his enemies, Big Daddy packs guns and kills them. Like Red Mist, his intentions are more selfish than those of Kick-Ass. Big Daddy is seeking revenge and revenge only. What makes the character so fun to watch is his alter-ego, which is so very white bread. I kept thinking of Tobias Funke from Arrested Development, right down to the hairline. It’s a great juxtaposition from the man to the mask.
But the real scene stealer is Chloe Moretz, who plays 11 year-old Mindy aka butterfly knife wielding Hit Girl, the daughter of Big Daddy. We last saw Moretz as the smart-ass younger sister of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer. This same attitude makes her that much more entertaining here. Her father has molded her into a miniature bringer of death in his grand plan of vengeance. She’s not only good at it, but loves it, mostly because of her close connection to her father. A family friend insists Mindy has been brainwashed by her blood-thirsty father, but the girl would never see it that way. It reminds me of pagent mothers or sports dads who live through their children to the point of training them for hours and hours a day. The children in those situations often see nothing out of the ordinary about their relationship, which is why Mindy finds nothing wrong with her father testing out her bullet-proof vest by shooting her from 20 feet away. It’s shocking and macabre, but her enthusiasm for the training (even down to her plead for ice cream after training) is effective. And while it is gruesome, her talent for destroying enemies and the sass that goes with it is guilty fun to watch. It’s even more fun with songs like Bad Reputation playing during these scenes. Her action scenes remind me of another cinematic female assassin by the name of Beatrice Kiddo.
The other characters are nicely cast and fun to watch. We last saw Mark Strong as the villain in Sherlock Holmes, but his performance as crime boss Frank D’Amico is a different sort of bad guy. The audience gets a front row seat as his organization starts to fall apart at the seams. He is still ruthless and assumes his cronies are lying about the Batman-like figure robbing them. There is a dark comedic moment when D’Amico is meeting his son to go to the movies and they can still hear his accused traitor being tortured a few rooms away. I had a soft spot for Dave’s very realistic best friends Todd and Marty (Evan Peters and Clark Duke respectively). I’ve seen Duke in some very funny roles in the last few years and he was very good in this smaller role. Towards the end of the film, Peters has one of the funniest moments of the whole movie. Lyndsy Fonseca plays the beautiful Katie, who mistranslates Dave’s bruises as the results of a hate crime and makes Dave her new gay friend. She’s not an idiot, but she’s just a little bit too naive. But you know what, she’ has a generous personality (she volunteers to help recovering drug addicts) and is more likable than similar characters in kind of story (and she is better than she is in the books). And while he wasn’t on screen very long, there was something special in Garrett Brown‘s portrayal of Dave’s quiet dad who just wants his son to be happy.
The real issue I had with the movie is that there felt like there were pieces missing. Dave’s alter ego shoots to fame so quickly and during a montage we see he gets hundreds and hundreds of emails from people who need help. We’re led to believe that he is accepting as many calls for help as he can, but we barely see him do anything. When we do, he is pretty bad at it. I am alright with him being a less-than-adequate fighter, but how did he survive all those other nights, then? We’re just never sure how good he is at fighting bad guys and that’s important to know! At another point of the film, Red Mist shows loyalty and even friendship towards Kick-Ass, but you don’t see the two of them together very much at all. It just feels like a couple huge chunks of the film were taken out and it made a big difference how I enjoyed the movie. I have to wonder if more scenes were shot that would fill in these blanks, but were ultimately cut for time.
There are some nice tongue-in-cheek moments within Kick-Ass. Dave’s copy of Watchmen made me very happy. His assurance to the audience that he will not be avenging his mother’s death (since she died of natural causes, nothing sinister) was great, too. At one point, the movie becomes a first person shooter, with the audience seeing the world through Hit Girl’s point of view as she takes down some low level thugs one by one. And Hit Girl wears a disguise toward the end of the movie that once again channels Kill Bill (Vol. 1, if you’re interested).
There are plenty of critics out there who have bashed the movie, calling it reprehensible and violent and I’m not quite sure where this reaction is coming from. Please don’t get me wrong; this is a very violent movie and it teeters between edgy and offensive for a large majority of the run time. Just because it has a kid in it doesn’t mean it is for kids by any means. But is it that much more offensive than the other films in this genre? Watchmen and Sin City are both incredibly violent comic book adaptations and the latter involves a little girl thrown in the middle of all the chaos. Is it just because a young girl is one of the most violent characters? Watchmen shows a boy around the same age bullied so far that he bites his tormentor’s cheek off. And from what I’ve been told, the big screen version of Hit Girl is toned down from her literary counterpart. And the violence carried out by Hit Girl and Big Daddy is condemned by one of the only rational characters in the whole movie. Just because this violence is shown on screen doesn’t mean the filmmakers are endorsing such behavior. One can argue Kick-Ass shows that the path of violent revenge only leads to more suffering. The thing is, if you don’t like the violence in this movie, you have a problem with the whole genre, not just with this film. And if you really don’t like gore and violence, I wouldn’t suggest you go see this movie because you’re not the intended audience.
Overall: The vast differences from the book and the sketchy arc makes Kick-Ass a flawed film. However, if you like over-the-top violence mixed with dark comedy, you’re still going to have a great time watching this homage to the classic superhero story. And Chloe Morentz’s performance makes it well worth it.
3 out of 5 stars