Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Kick-Ass" Review

The ultraviolent, postmodern "Kick-Ass" is at the forefront of the comic book movie scene at a volatile turning point. The '00s were defined in no small part by Hollywood's Spidermen, Batmen, and X-Men, and until "Avatar" rolled around, they were the box office champions smashing records every year. Now Raimi's "Spiderman" has fizzled out and is being rejiggered by Sony, the "X-Men" franchise has devolved into schlock, and "Batman," while healthy, represents the superhero sub-genre at its most pointedly operatic.

"Kick-Ass" takes a fresh approach, smartly deconstructing comic book ideology in a meta-comedy that satirizes convention while simultaneously drawing from it. As a movie based on a comic book about comic book geeks, there's a degree of self-conscious irony to watching a fake superhero narrative snowball into a real one. It pokes fun at the melodrama of origin stories even as it unfurls its own. "Kick-Ass" follows protagonist Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who's as big a dweeb as Spiderman's alter ego Peter Parker, but without the chip on his shoulder and radioactive spider bite. Lizewski is roundly average, and ultimately more believable than Parker; his superhero dress rehearsal doesn't end victorious in an underground fighting ring—It ends in an ambulance after being knifed in a parking lot.

Undeterred, Lizewski tackles pet rescue and petty theft until a passerby records one of his more marginally successful street brawls on a cell phone camera, and his alias, 'Kick-Ass' becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity. His sudden prominence heralds dozens of copycat heroes, but even the progenitor finds himself outmatched by the likes of "Big Daddy" (Nick Cage), and his deadly 12-year-old daughter, "Hit-Girl" (Chloe Moretz), a character that truly tests the audience as accessories to vigilante justice.

There's already controversy brewing, though personally, I find it a little hard to buy into the offense. The exponential brutality of the violence perpetrated not only against Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl later in the film, but more importantly by them, is appalling on some level, sure. But it's taken to an extent that's pure slapstick. At heart, "Kick-Ass" is gory, bloody comedy.

But a comedy nonetheless. Maybe it's all the more troubling that Hit-Girl's casual propensity for murder is played for laughs, but I think we laugh at Hit-Girl for the same reason we laugh at Bugs Bunny, even when he's got a shotgun in Elmer Fudd's mouth: it's classic comedic role reversal. Who doesn't want to see the wabbit humiliate the hunter? If anything, "Looney Tunes" is less responsible in its depiction of violence because there's no consequence of the shotgun blast. Hit-Girl's action sequences are deliriously destructive, unbelievably graphic, and a hell of a lot of fun.

And that's really what I love most about "Kick-Ass." Even (or especially) in the face of violence, it doesn't take itself seriously, nor would I argue it directly purports its characters as heroes in the traditional sense. No one seems especially concerned that they're held up as role models, and what's endearing, hilarious, and horrifying about their behavior shines through because of it.

This is ballsy commercial filmmaking, which is likely why seven studios passed on the script last year. It takes risks that may alienate some in the mainstream, and its success has already been capped somewhat by the hard R rating, but I don't think "Kick-Ass" is the sort of film that will go out without a fight. If not a huge hit like the PG-13 Spidermen and Batmen of years past, it's got real cult appeal, and because it's uncompromising in its premise—Even to a fault in the uneven gradient from reality to comic book reality, "Kick-Ass" is the sort of film with staying power. And if this is where we're headed, count me in.


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