Kick-Ass has been hotly debated since the trailer debuted, featuring 11-year-old assassin Hit Girl calling bad guys "cunts." Critics still disagree about her character, but say the film may do for superhero movies what Pulp Fiction did for crime films.
Though Hit Girl has gotten all the attention, she isn't actually the star. The film, which opens today, is about Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), an average comic book nerd who buys a wetsuit on the Internet and starts fighting crime. He winds up in the hospital, but video of one of his altercations goes viral on YouTube. He starts doing freelance crime fighting, but discovers he isn't the only amateur superhero in New York City. Former cop Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter Mindy (Chloë Grace Moretz) have transformed themselves into the costumed vigilantes Big Daddy and Hit Girl to take on a mob boss (Mark Strong) who framed Macready years ago. The mob boss' son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is also posing as Red Mist, Hit Girl's arch-nemesis.
The meaning of Hit Girl's character, and the fact that Moretz was only 11 during filming, was the focus of most reviews, but critics were generally more concerned by the extreme acts of violence she commits than her cursing. The film features gratuitous Kill Bill-style violence: "human bodies are microwaved, crushed in trash compactors, skewered, bazookaed, and burned alive." While the Macready's have a "genuinely touching" father-daughter relationship, they are never shown discussing the consequences of violence. Hit Girl is unaffected by what she does, and one critic remarked that, Moretz is "still playing dress-up, and the sneakier parts of the character elude her." She doesn't keep up with Nicolas Cage, whose performance critics found surprisingly nuanced, even though he's doing an Adam West impersonation throughout.
The film's central question about what happens when ordinary people try to become superheros was already addressed in last year's Watchmen, which like Kick-Ass was based on a graphic novel, but critics say director Matthew Vaughn did a better job adapting his material into film. There are some clever insights in the film about celebrity culture and the appeal of violent superhero stories, even if some, like Roger Ebert, still find using a young girl to examine those themes, "morally reprehensible."
In a profile of Moretz in the Sunday New York Times, the director, Matthew Vaughn, pointed out the hypocrisy of those who criticized his movie's use of profanity while ignoring its violence: "I was like, 'Does it not bother you that she killed about 53 people in this film?' … I'm like, 'Would you rather your daughter swore, or became a masked vigilante killer?' They're going, 'Yeah, I don't know.' "
Cogently put, sir. But this critic, for one, is going, "Yeah, it does bother me that Moretz's character, Hit Girl, and her fellow amateur superheroes rack up a body count in the high dozens." In the course of this zany romp made for the high-school set, human bodies are microwaved, crushed in trash compactors, skewered, bazookaed, and burned alive. And, yes, it's comic-book violence and deliberately over the top-but since Kick-Ass' whole premise is that comic-book violence, when enacted in real life, has real consequences, it seems a strange choice to layer Tarantino-style splatter onto the Y.A.-novel setting and play the whole thing for laughs.
[Hit Girl's] language is so astonishingly crude that it has taken people's attention away from all the killing she does, which is mind-boggling as well. Yet at the same time as we're unnerved by someone so young acting this way, what makes this film so intriguing is that, largely due to the terrific spirit and skill of young actress Moretz, if you are any kind of action film fan it's difficult to deny the live-wire pulp energy that plays out on screen. It's as if all the arguments about these hyper-violent films - why they are so popular, what they have done to our culture - are open for business in one convenient location. It may or may not be the end of civilization as we know it, but Kick-Ass certainly is Exhibit A of the here and now.
Sentences I never thought I'd write: Nicholas Cage gives the most nuanced performance in this movie. Cage, now firmly entrenched in his late-mannerist phase, turns a neat vocal trick whenever he dons his Big Daddy mask and cape: His speech rhythms lurch into the odd staccato delivery of Adam West, TV's original Batman. As Damon McReady talking to his daughter, Cage sounds completely different, his voice a soothing paternal wheedle. Cage's studied, campy performance doesn't really fit the movie's tossed-off, casual tone, but you have to admire the amount of thought he put into details that so few younger viewers will notice. A man who names his son Kal-El is a man who takes his comics seriously.
Hit Girl, trained by a daddy (Nicolas Cage) with rubber-suited-vigilante ambitions of his own, turns out to be the most ass-kicking character in the film. The reason that's a good joke is that the way she turns villains into cannon fodder is really no more preposterous than, say, Bruce Willis doing the same thing. Yet is it a problem that Kick-Ass is by far the most violent movie ever to feature kids as heroes? Parents should consider themselves warned, though personally, I just wish that the film had ended up a bit less of an over-the-top action ride. It didn't need this much slam-bang when it had us at real-life superheroics.
To apotheosize the clichés of the genre while subverting them is a neat trick, but the Kick-Ass cadre pulls it off. This is a violent R-rated drama that comments cogently on the impulses - noble, venal or twisted - that lead people to help or hurt others. Kick-Ass kicks beaucoup d'ass, in some of the dandiest, most punishing stunt work this side of Hong Kong, but it forces the grownups in the audience to acknowledge that the action is as troubling as it is gorgeous. (Preteens should definitely wait a few years before seeing this.) The result is a work that spills out of itself to raise issues about all superhero characters, all action pictures. Millar isn't boasting when he writes in the making-of book that Kick-Ass could "redefine superhero movies in the same way Pulp Fiction redefined crime movies."
Here and there, Kick-Ass offers some genuinely clever observations about the creation of celebrity in a world where viral video clips and latenight talkshow quips can turn attention seekers into overnight sensations (and inadvertent role models). Pic also takes a few potshots at not-so-innocent bystanders who refuse to get actively involved in anyone else's emergencies. For the most part, however, "Kick-Ass" is less concerned with social commentary than slam-bang outrageousness. Hit Girl's increasingly escalating mayhem is a running joke that somehow gets funnier as the pic progresses, and Moretz's deft mix of girlish sincerity and steely ferocity only increases the laugh quotient. Of course, that won't be enough to keep some professional moralists from taking issue with her onscreen activity.
Although Chloe Grace Moretz's foul-mouthed portrayal of the plucky Mindy has already drawn fire in the blogosphere, Mindy's self-reliance and confidence result in a weirdly reassuring portrait of a young girl who's able to defend herself. What's more, her relationship with her father isn't cynical but genuinely touching (and Nicolas Cage, in his Big Daddy persona, delivers a pretty funny Adam West imitation as the caped Big Daddy). Too often, movies as besotted with violence as Kick-Ass simply ratchet up the action at the expense of everything else. To his credit, Vaughn (best known for the graphic novel adaptation Stardust) makes sure that the stylized, progressively more fantastical set pieces here are leavened with compensatory humor, a gratifyingly playful tone and characters blessed with smarts and lovability. What's more, he stages Kick-Ass with the fluidity and flutter of a comic book itself: The film's penultimate shootout, filmed in flashes of darkness and strobe-lit mayhem, looks like a series of pen-and-ink panels brought to outrageous, outsize life.
In schizoid fashion, I both spluttered and enjoyed myself. Moretz has aplomb, and when Cage underplays the monomania, he reminds you what a droll comic actor he can be. Director-panderer Matthew Vaughn fetishizes the little girl and her virtuosic scissor-knife work, the hyperbolic weaponry, the can-you-top-this carnage. There's even a teen-sex angle: Johnson's nerd superhero pretends to be gay so he can have "nonthreatening" sleepovers with a luscious classmate. Kick-Ass is a compendium of all sleazy things, and it sings like a siren to our inner Tarantinos.
There's something about the killer schoolgirl that turns some filmmakers on, and audiences, too - who knows what further dangers lurk beneath that kilt? However chastely, Mr. Vaughn plays on that unsettling image, which shores up the false impression that because Hit-Girl is a powerful figure she's also an empowering one. Ms. Moretz certainly walks the walk and jumps the jump, loading a new gun in midrun like a baby Terminator. But as her deployment of a four-letter slur for women indicates, and as the cop-out last blowout only underscores, Hit-Girl isn't a wee Wonder Woman. She's not even a latter-day Lara Croft, who, however absurd, works on screen because of Ms. Jolie's own outsize persona. A supergimmick, Hit-Girl by contrast is a heroine for these movie times: a vision of female might whittled down to pocketsize.
If you have a particularly delicate stomach and object to seeing seeing heads lopped off, limbs getting hacked, bodies exploding and being crushed, you might have a problem with Kick-Ass. Especially because much of that mayhem is committed by an 11-year old girl. But while it's violent, it's also a heck of a lot of fun as it upends the tired formula for superhero films. It cleverly dissects the superhero phenomenon even as it celebrates it. It's smart and it's a hoot and that's a winning combo. As he proved so handily in Layer Cake, director-cowriter Matthew Vaughn knows how to give a lively goose to the oldest and most hackneyed of movie clichés. There is a final, extended shootout scene here that references one of Quentin Tarantino's in Kill Bill and then tops it, deploying violence and humor to dazzling effect. It will have you gasping in shock — Hit Girl is central to it — even as you're laughing. Would I want to see an 11-year kid, male or female, whacking folk in real life? Of course not. But Hit Girl and Kick-Ass are so removed from reality that a viewer can appreciate the character for the clever conceit that it is. The critics need to chill.
An 11-year-old girl swearing is not the end of the world, just one more jokey coarsening in the fabric of life in our 24/7 googolplex. I'm more concerned that Moretz can't keep up with Cage, who's a past master of serious wack. This time out, the actor has swiped Adam West's diction from the old Batman TV series as Big Daddy grudgingly accepts Kick-Ass into his and Hit-Girl's gruesome revenge plot. For all the flying masonry and stuntwork, Cage remains this movie's most special special effect. Moretz is game, but she's still playing dress-up, and the sneakier parts of the character elude her. Is there an extra Fanning sister stuck at home with nothing to do? Maybe she could have taken this role into truly transgressive realms while convincing us of the character's humanity - the power charge Hit-Girl gets from wasting bad guys and the price she pays in losing her childhood.
Kick-Ass comes closest to inspired, unsettling lunacy when it lets Moretz loose on a bunch of bad guys who aren't expecting death to arrive wearing pigtails. But elsewhere, Vaughn struggles to put his own stamp on some familiar action beats, unless spotlighting a billboard featuring his wife, Claudia Schiffer, counts as a personal touch. A film about wannabes who use attitude and bluster to emulate their inspirations, this ersatz blockbuster ends up seeming a little too much like its heroes.
Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? Will I seem hopelessly square if I find Kick-Ass morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in. A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.