Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review - Kick-Ass

After the deluge of huge, effects-laden superhero blockbusters that has dominated cinemas in the past decade, there's something pleasing in seeing the modestly budgeted Kick-Ass come out of nowhere to provide more imagination and entertainment than almost all of them. Matthew Vaughn's film also outstrips its competitors in terms of bloodshed and profanity, and the picture's no-holds-barred approach is sure to make it an instant hit among viewers tired of mainstream cinema's safety-first approach, but that edginess isn't Kick-Ass' sole distinguishing feature, and it doesn't explain why this film is such a success. Kick-Ass works because it is based upon a clever, well-structured screenplay, the direction and pacing is excellent, and it boasts a handful of perfectly pitched performances. All in all, it's a dazzlingly effective piece of popular entertainment, and perhaps the only weak spot is the leading man himself.

Our hero, Dave Lizewski, is an average teen living a mundane high school existence. Despite being played by the perfectly good-looking Aaron Johnson, Lizewski claims that his only superpower is his invisibility to the opposite sex, notably Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), the chief object of his affection. Tired of being a nobody, and of being mugged by local thugs, this misguided youth arbitrarily decides to become a crime-fighter, unperturbed by his lack of powers, and counting on nothing more than his optimism, naïveté and a makeshift green costume as he takes to the streets. As Kick-Ass, Dave discovers that the world is a far more unforgiving place for masked avengers than his comic books would suggest, and his first encounter leaves him bloody, beaten and hospitalised. Nevertheless, with some reinforced metal plates shoring up his damaged bones, and broken nerve endings leaving him impervious to pain, Kick-Ass is ready to have another go at cleaning up the streets, and when one fight is caught on camera, he becomes an internet sensation.

The problem with having a central character such as Dave is that things just tend to happen to him for much of the movie. After making the decision to don his green wetsuit and become Kick-Ass, he spends most of the subsequent narrative trying to cope with the consequences of his actions, and although the character's fluctuating emotions are convincingly drawn, his passivity makes him a frustrating figure to base a film around. This problem is exacerbated by the supporting characters, all of whom manage to eclipse Kick-Ass within moments of appearing on screen. The crime boss that Dave unwittingly runs afoul of is played by Mark Strong, who brings all of his customary menace and presence – as well as some underplayed wit – to the role of Frank D'Amico, while Christopher Mintz-Plasse offers a slight variation on his usual shtick as another teen inspired to create a heroic alter-ego. There are two other significant performances worth discussing in the film – both of which are so good I'll deal with them separately – but the bottom line is that the titular character is only the fourth or fifth most compelling figure in the movie.

Such complaints become less significant as Kick-Ass builds up its breathless momentum. In adapting Mark Millar's comic book, scriptwriter Jane Goldman has crafted a first-rate screenplay that weaves the fates of its multiple characters together skilfully, and strikes a fine balance between the film's comedy and action. In the places where Goldman struggles to make a smooth transition between the disparate tones, Matthew Vaughn manages to provide some finesse with his direction, which displays an energy and inventiveness that it has never possessed before. I have to admit, after the stylishly hollow Layer Cake and the flaccid Stardust, I didn't think Vaughn had it in him, but he excels in his handling of this material. The director's control of the action sequences is a real highlight, they are shot and edited with a kinetic rush and bone-crunching impact, and I was impressed with the way Vaughn utilised the time leading up to these set-pieces to develop a sense of tension that makes the climactic fights even more satisfying. Beyond the action, Vaughn's clear and bright framing respects Kick-Ass' comic-book origins without feeling like a tired, Zack Snyder-style facsimile, and there are numerous enjoyable little touches dotted throughout the film, like the lovely animated introduction to one character's backstory.

Speaking of character introductions; what about those two key figures I referenced in passing earlier? Well, these two are responsible for a large portion of the film's excitement, humour and heart. Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) are a father-daughter team who were dressing up and fighting crime long before Kick-Ass arrived on the scene and, unlike the eponymous character, these two really know what they're doing. They use their large arsenal of weaponry with deadly efficiency as they eliminate D'Amico's henchmen, and there's a hilarious contrast between this brutality and the homely sweetness of their domestic scenes together, which is perfectly captured by both actors. After his brilliantly deranged turn in Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, this is a slightly more restrained Nicolas Cage, but he's terrific as Big Daddy, especially when he's in full costume and channelling Adam West. Moretz, however, is the movie's real revelation. As the foul-mouthed and utterly ruthless 11 year-old, she electrifies the film with a performance of brash attitude that makes Hit-Girl one of the most vivid and memorable screen heroines of recent years. It's no coincidence that she's at the centre of the film's most memorable moments – including a sensational attack in complete darkness – and she'll be the name on everyone's lips as the credits roll. The movie may be entitled Kick-Ass, but don't be fooled – this is Hit-Girl's movie all the way.