KICK-ASS / Review

If Watchmen was the 'art-house' comic book movie adaptation of last year, then Kick-Ass is its polar opposite this year. Where Watchmen raised the form to the level of literature and examined the psychological make up of a group of costumed heroes set against the politics of the Cold War, Kick-Ass looks to the readers of comic books for its inspiration and offers consumers of such fictions a wish-fulfillment odyssey that clearly stems from a recognition of their own failed desires and aspirations.

Matthew Vaughan and Jane Goldman's adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jnr's original comic book takes the conventions of the form, pays homage to the icons of the genre, both old and new, and then blends them with a Tarrantino-esque cinematic irony and penchant for uber-violence. The result is a startlingly perverse film that mocks the stereotypical nerdy comic book geek in a very knowing way but without completely belittling him and yet expresses clearly the reasons why we all love our comic books.

What it ultimately taps into, underlined by Aaron Johnson's opening narration as the central character Dave Lizewski, is that shared memory of tying a bedsheet round your neck and nearly breaking your legs flinging yourself off the garden shed in an attempt to fly like Superman or sling some web like Spiderman. And as it basks in that nostalgia it cannily embellishes its teenage superhero plot line with a witty take on social media and transmedia branding, a spectacular needle dropping of popular music onto the soundtrack and incredibly fierce and balletic Hong Kong style action sequences.

It's a fine balancing act in attempting this satire of a satire on the comic book genre and the teenage consumers that wallow in the form's metatextuality and, fortunately, Vaughan directs this with humour and pace, timing well the need for a push of adrenaline into certain points of the narrative and pauses for reality checks in the world beyond the super hero fantasy. The film opens with Dave Lizewski, in a sweet and charming performance by Aaron Johnson, telling us about his lacklustre daily routine as a teenage student, bemoaning his lack of success with girls and concerned about how long his hormones will demand his continual wanking off to internet porn. As the Kleenex drops into the waste basket and a 'Meanwhile' box out appears on screen, you start to appreciate that this is going to be something quite different from the impressive but somewhat po-faced likes of Watchmen and The Dark Knight.

Your hopes are immediately confirmed as we are introduced to Nicolas Cage’s character, Damon Macready, whom we later discover is a costumed super hero called Big Daddy, and his daughter Mindy Macready, her costumed alter-ego being Hit Girl (the astonishingly good Chloe Moretz). Damon has clearly been bringing up his daughter in a, shall we say, rather unorthodox manner. The promise of a hot fudge sundae is the only way he can get her to continue taking close range gun shots in the chest to prepare her for operations in the field. And 11 year old Mindy can swear like a trooper and would make the most voluble docker blush with shame.

In chatting about what she would like as a birthday present her request for a puppy momentarily foxes us and her father into believing she's really a nice little girl after all. 'I'm just fucking with you Daddy... I'd love a bench made model 42 butterfly knife!' Damon chortles in relief at her response, 'Oh child... you always knock me for a loop'. It certainly establishes the film's tone of genre mockery as does the sequence where we see Macready prepping to become Big Daddy by glueing on extra bits of fake hair to his real facial hair as if it makes all the difference in the world! Big Daddy and Hit Girl are, it seems, on the trail of notorious drugs overlord Frank D'Amico who years ago framed ex-cop Macready into doing time. This back story is rather lovingly told via the pages of a comic book that Frank's partner Marcus leafs through in Big Daddy's headquarters when he's concerned about Frank's activities.

Dave Lizewski, 'meanwhile' has decided that it can't be that difficult being a super hero out on the streets and has decided to emulate his comic book favourites by donning a rather appalling green and yellow wetsuit and Timberland boots combo to patrol the streets as Kick-Ass. After being beaten up and stripped of his costume and, with a period of treatment in hospital for all his broken bones (he proudly displays his X-rays of all the metal plates in his body to his father and compares himself to Wolverine), he discovers that as a side-effect his nerve endings are more tolerant of extreme pain.

However, he's also getting some attention from his high-school crush Katie (after it was earlier suggested she was in a lesbian relationship and he doesn't stand a chance) because she believes all the rumours that Dave is gay after his assault (attacked by men and left naked in the street is such a give away it seems). The playfulness of the film encourages us to see Dave's origin story as an inverted version of the scenarios typically framed by the likes of Batman, Spiderman and Superman. This is an origin story that reads similarly to many of the internal monologues that comic books allow but also throws up contra-conventions - Dave's super hero alter-ego Kick-Ass doesn't evolve much beyond his origin's codification of teenage weaknesses and foibles.

In fact, in modern parlance he really is 'gay' beyond the sexual references that the 'accusation' typifies.  Kick-Ass and Dave's journey therefore become parallel - he wants to be an effective super hero and simultaneously mature beyond the raging of his confused teenage hormones. Cue plenty of Superbad style jokes, witticisms (love the piss take of a superhero having to rescue a cat called Mr. Bitey) and a depiction of Kick-Ass as the Subo of the comic book world when a mobile phone video of him attacking a group of thugs posted on You Tube sends the stats into overload.

What also happens is that the Big Daddy and Hit Girl plot line neatly converges with Dave's desire to help out Katie who is being harassed by one of the addicts in the needle exchange where she works. As Kick-Ass, he thinks his actions will enable him to get closer to Katie and give him the courage to admit that he's been exploiting the 'gay best friend' card just to get closer to her. When he innocently confronts the addicts in their den and it looks like he's signed his own death warrant, Hit Girl bursts into the room with the film's most splendidly outrageous line 'Okay, you cunts... lets see what you can do now!' as she proceeds to tear them all to pieces.

And Hit Girl's leather, purple wig and kilt ensemble will no doubt be the de rigeur fashion for all 11 year old girls this year. Hopefully, the c-word won't be but I bet there are certain 11 year olds out there already wielding butterfly knives at bus stops! That the bloody battle is choreographed and edited so well is one thing but a layer of strange is added by having the theme song from the Banana Splits blasting away on the soundtrack. Like I said, perverse. You'll love Hit Girl.

Cage is clearly up for this too and turns in a tongue in cheek performance. His alter-ego Big Daddy is an hilarious pastiche of Batman, not just in terms of the classic black costume and yellow utility belt but also in Cage's surreal delivery of Big Daddy's lines as a weird sort of homage to Adam West's campy clipped tones from the Batman television series. I love the way he oscillates between this and the Damon Macready father figure gleefully introducing his daughter to all manner of mayhem inducing weaponry as if he was buying her the latest My Little Pony action figures. And there's a wry nod to consumer culture too as they 'add to cart' whilst purchasing weapons of mass destruction over the internet.

Father and daughter's vendetta against Frank D'Amico is carried out with utter precision, gradually sending the crime overlord spinning into psychosis (he shoots a cos play Kick-Ass fan in the street) and there's a very amusing scene where his thugs interrogate an informer with an industrial microwave. Mark Strong is rather good as D'Amico and leads an ensemble of other British actors here including, briefly, Dexter Fletcher (you'll never look at a car crusher in quite the same way) and Jason Flemyng plus familiar television faces such as Corey Johnson and Xander Berkeley.

The film coasts along very effectively and adds a further layer with Frank's son, Chris D'Amico, in which he desperately wants to be part of his father's crime syndicate to such an extent that he becomes the rather pathetic Red Mist (the rivalry between Red Mist and Kick-Ass amusingly punctuated by Sparks This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us on the soundtrack) in order to catch Kick-Ass and then lead his father to Big Daddy and Hit Girl and the inevitable showdown. Red Mist has a snazzy cloak and a cool car but that's about it apart from a serious inferiority complex. His story is perhaps the weakest element in the film, perhaps because his motivation really isn't as clear as it should be, but Christopher Mintz-Plasse is effectively un-cool as Red Mist and the character's journey does imply a route to a potential sequel with its finale Joker quotation.

The later half of the film isn't quite as inventive as the first half because it inevitably has to tick the boxes on the list of conflicts it has set up in the narrative and does this with an obligatory rescue sequence when Big Daddy and Kick-Ass are captured. Nice to see gender conventions reversed here whilst Vaughan shows us Hit Girl's attacks as a first person shooter game visual. It visually summarises the notions of game play and fantasy that lie beneath the comic book narratives and there is an attempt to unpack the negative aspects of violent revenge but it does tend to get swamped by the sheer glee that Vaughan clearly has with the film's descent into a spiral of mind-boggling savagery. Vaughan arrestingly cuts her infra-red view point in with a kaleidoscope of flickering strobes, slow motion abstracts and bursts of gun fire. It certainly doesn't shirk away from an audience's tendency to rubber neck at unsettlingly violent actions with D'Amico's internet broadcast of Kick-Ass and Big Daddy being tortured.

When the showdown comes you will not be disappointed. Hit Girl plays on her schoolgirl charms to access D'Amico's swish apartment whilst Ennio Morricone's music from For A Few Dollars More soars on the soundtrack. A particularly marvellous punchline to a running gag about what Big Daddy and Hit Girl did purchase on the internet appears here in an orgy of Tarrantino violence and destruction and I also suggest you keep an eye on that bazooka. Your reaction here will simply be to jump up and down in your seat cheering on Hit Girl's attempts to wipe out D'Amico's gang without any consideration as to how fucked up this 11 year old girl actually is. But you can't help admire the film's spirit and its tale of a young teenager who aspires to be something greater in the face of utter failure. It might be lip service to the concept in the final reckoning but it still has a soul.

The film is stuffed with geeky touches - listen to the Ilan Eshkeri and Henry Jackman soundtrack for cues from John Williams Superman Danny Elfman's Batman themes, a mention of Scott Pilgrim, discussions about various super hero origin stories, even Vaughan's wife Claudia Schiffer promoting her perfume on a huge billboard in a slightly self-indulgent scene that flip-flops the narrative between fantasy and reality. The comic is somewhat bleaker in tone and apparently Mark Millar rewrote the conclusion of the comic book as more twisted in contrast to the hokey 'responsibilities' ending to the film.

It's a witty, drolly violently rollercoaster ride that thankfully pricks the pomposity of previous comic book film adaptations and offers a revisionist, knowing deconstruction of the super hero stereotypes and story tropes. How well the jokes and action set pieces will hold up after multiple viewings will be a moot point but it's certainly an entertainingly anarchic film.

Kick-Ass (Cert 15. Released 26th March 2010. Directed by Matthew Vaughan)

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