To say that the subject matter of Kick-Ass is close to my heart is an understatement. Not because I love comic book heroes, the blending of the real and fantastical, or even the thus-far short but provocative directorial career of Matthew Vaughn. No, it’s because, like the characters in it, I once yearned to be superhero, forged in chaos and cursed to live a double identity.
Okay, maybe I should explain that my tenure as vigilant crime fighter was incredibly brief, and that I didn’t actually make a costume, as such, as it was mostly a complete misunderstanding. About 25 years ago I got accidentally trapped in a high office block late on Friday evening, and while attempting to extract myself, I ended up in a life threatening situation. Bluntly, I was stuck in sub-zero temperatures behind glass about 20 feet up, with no chance of rescue until the other side of the weekend.
Realistically assessing that I wouldn’t live that long, I chose to break out in spectacular fashion. But I failed to consider how badly smashing through a window and falling a long way to hard ground might go. Using my briefcase as a battering ram, I assaulted the window. It seemed for five of the six times I hit the thing that it was made of unobtainium. And the sixth time? Tissue paper. The final blow propelled me through the opening and into the late night air surrounded by a hail of broken glass. Amazingly, I landed on my feet, and went into the classic one-knee-down pose, with my long gabardine coat swirling about me like a cape.
Stick with it. There’s a point to this.
When I stood up in a back alley I was confronted by a man and a young woman, who appeared to be having a serious dispute. On observing my dramatic entrance and physical scale, the bloke spontaneously ran off, and I took that cue to run in the opposite direction.
Weeks later a friend pointed me to a local newspaper story about a vigilante they’d called ‘The Dark Avenger’, who stalked the rooftops of that fair city, and took his vengeance on muggers. I never had the heart to tell them the truth, nor about his trusted sidekick, Sammy Samsonite.
So, is Kick-Ass as remotely crazy as my story? Oh yes, and then some.
The premise of this movie, and comic on which it’s based, is a frighteningly simple one: what if someone really tried to be a superhero? What would the consequences be?
The answer, over a frenetic running time of approximately two hours, is that it’s a horribly dangerous path that will probably get you killed in relatively short order.
If that seems a somewhat thin platform, then let me assure you Kick-Ass takes that and every other comic book convention and plants them firmly wrong-side up. And I don’t mean in a moronic Meet The Spartans type way. The referential humour and genre twisting in this are clever and mature, and, for the most part, not remotely infantile.
Kick-Ass is told entirely from the perspective of the main character Dave Lizewski, played with disturbingly accomplished ease by teen heart-throb Aaron Johnson. He probably gets twice the screen time of any other character, both as himself and as his green suited alter-ego Kick-Ass.
Johnson’s Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass is remarkably natural and believable, in a way that makes Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker seem painfully forced and self conscious. His character’s inability to relate to girls of his age, the insular circles he moves in and the impact on him of becoming a superhero are all well observed.
However, Johnson alone can’t carry the entire film and luckily for him he has some very able support in the form of two much more serious superhero personas: Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and the diminutive Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz). As Kick-Ass describes them, ‘they’re the real deal’, and take no prisoners.
With Cage, let’s be blunt: you’re never quite sure if you’re going to get a quality performance, as he’s turned in on occasion, or something phoned from an adjacent lot, Snake Eyes for example. There isn’t much of his Damon Macready/Big Daddy character in this, but what you get is pure magic, and Cage is on top form.
Wronged by a gangland boss, he sets about planning his revenge in meticulous detail, which involves turning himself and his 12-year-old daughter into an entirely nightmarish version of Batman and Robin. Shades of The Dark Knight Returns certainly, but something entirely new and possibly even more perverse is layered into their characters.
At times there aren’t really words to describe Chloe Moretz’s Hit-Girl, and I can already imagine the negative reactions from a certain sector of the press about the worrying influence of this pre-pubescent killing machine. Hit-Girl rules because of Moretz’s perfect dynamic of athletic poise, clinical lethality and the unbound cheerfulness with which ‘honey bunny’ goes about her work.
At one point an especially stupid goon (played by Jason Flemyng, incidentally) points out that ‘she’s only a little girl’. It doesn’t take this character long to realise the enormity of that mistake, as does anyone else who accepts her appearance so literally. Hit-Girl is an irresistible force of nature, and the one on which the entire plot ultimately pivots.
I, and it seemed the assembled journalistic audience at the screening, fell immediately in love with the purple-haired Ninja with the profanity skills of a dockland worker. But I can understand why some might be less impressed.
I’ve decided not to give away what happens in Kick-Ass, as it’s far too enjoyable to spoil here. I can assure you it isn’t what you expect or could guess – it’s far too insane for conventional wisdom. What I can say is that, in structural terms, the narrative has a beginning, middle and end, with the story ramping through the centre to a suitably dramatic conclusion.
It might seem twee to celebrate this, but the number of movies that arrive on screen without progressing properly or in a satisfying fashion are numerous. What I really wasn’t expecting from director Matthew Vaughn was how succinctly he controls the pace, injecting just the right amounts of adrenaline at exactly the right moments.
The action sequences are brutal yet balletic, and wonderfully underpinned with the oddest assortment of soundtrack choices I’ve ever heard. I can only salute a man who’s prepared to put wholesale slaughter to the theme from The Banana Splits. Vaughn is up for that, and also adds in many other wonderful signature moments.
He also managed to cram a good number of able British actors into a movie set in New York, including the excellent Mark Strong as gangland boss Frank D’Amico, and a number of his recognisable henchmen. The US side of this production is also well held, with Christopher Mintz-Plasse (yes, McLovin) as Chris D’Amico/Red Mist. But even better than him are Evan Peters and Clark Duke, who play Dave’s equally hopeless geek friends, always there to provide the least helpful advice and/or encouragement.
Kick-Ass isn’t a movie for comic hoarders, costume fans or those that wear Spiderman pyjamas. This is a movie for all those geeks who fancied a go at being a crime fighter, but never had the nerve to accept the potentially dire consequences.
Having been thoroughly entertained by it, I have but one request to those that made it: please don’t do a sequel. The film stands up very well in isolation and doesn’t need another chapter, so please resist temptation to offer one. This is brilliant as it is.
Even without seeing any others I’m tempted to guess that Kick-Ass is the best comic book movie of 2010, and in some respects it’s more consistently entertaining than even The Dark Knight.
Beyond that, I can only paraphrase this movie, quoting another: just wait till they get a load of this…