Review: “Kick Ass”

If “Wanted” was a snuff film for rednecks who use gun oil for lubricant, then “Kick Ass” is stroke material for a generation of geeks raised on superheroes and consequence-free barbarism. A more inventive and shrewd effort than its garish costumes make it appear, this cartoonish celebration of hyper-violence and fuck you attitude is very much a love letter to the modern fanboy and will be embraced with both arms by those appreciative of the genre.

Beyond that though appeal is distinctly limited – though big on energy, not to mention boasting some fine performances, “Kick Ass” all too often falls into the trap of being either too juvenile in its irreverence or too enraptured in its bloodletting. Like most alpha males it’s nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is, and too often falls back on being brazen, crude or dismissive to hide deep insecurities about its identity.

Financed independently and produced essentially without studio interference has allowed director Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman to avoid the trap of “Hancock”, a film which started out as one of the most acclaimed scripts around. Then of course concerns over the sex and violence led to numerous rewrites which watered it down so much that what was left onscreen was such a testament to Orwellian censorship (and bad filmmaking) it probably gave Jack Valenti an erection – and he was in his grave by that time.

“Kick Ass” suffers from no such culling and thus the John Woo/Tarantino-style bloody violence from Mark Millar’s original comic remains intact. Unfortunately the comic isn’t exactly what you would call a classic of the format thanks to little in the way of a central narrative beyond a retread of the geeky high schooler turns hero template. The action is sporadically juxtaposed with some real-life consequences to yield rather basic satire which apparently makes it ‘dynamic’, ‘fresh’ or whatever other metaphor comic publicists can pull out of their ass.

Scribes Vaughn and Goldman make a few minor but welcome changes, mostly to deliver a more upbeat ending, which means the lead character Dave gets some personal growth (not to mention sex) while love interest Katie is less bitchy. Yet aside from the refreshing lack of inhibition and well-timed uses of profanity, there’s no escaping that there’s really nothing in the way of either fresh material or sharp wit on offer.

What it does have though is style in spades. Performances across the board are painted in broad strokes but rarely slip into parody which helps keep things grounded. From rising newcomer Aaron Johnson’s genuinely likeable and believable turn as the dweebish Dave to Christopher Mintz-Plasse finally getting to play a role without a McLovin’ influence, everyone seems to hold their own and treat the often shallow material with more earnestness than expected.

However it’s three people here that really shine and turn the entire film from a fun but forgettable ride into a real potential cult classic – Chloe Moretz, Mark Strong and Nicolas Cage. Strong continues a raft of impressive villains, this time smartly playing D’Amico as a two-bit hood who has achieved great success but remains little more than a not particularly bright thug albeit in nice suits.

Even though Hit Girl is essentially a one-joke character, think a pre-teen Vasquez from “Aliens”, young actress Moretz is a revelation who delivers not just the film’s best laughs but its few actual moments of deeper emotion in the final act. As the strange but caring single father fuelled by revenge, Cage’s quirky style of recent years finally fits the subject matter in hand to give us a performance more along the lines of his great 90’s work than his more laughable turns in recent years.

Cage’s chemistry with Moretz is strong as well, every scene without these two is decidedly less interesting for it. The pair could’ve easily been dismissed as pure comic relief support, but both the characters and performances are so interesting and better than you expect that they not only steal the movie but they make the rest of it pale in comparison to such an extent that you really care little for the antics of Kick Ass and Red Mist by the end.

Vaughn’s direction is strong. Crisply edited, smartly designed and smoothly shot – the film looks like it cost a lot more than it did. While Vaughn does come from the ‘new school’ of filmmakers who only seem to recruit cameramen on crystal meth, he avoids the excesses and stages action in a way that lets him blend the intensity of the new and the coherence of the more classic style. Pacing is relatively solid throughout, though does sag somewhat in the middle act before righting itself for the non-stop finale.

The shootouts are clever but do outstay their welcome, especially in the final act where self-indulgence rears its head loud and proud. The shift to a suddenly much darker and more serious approach in an extended sequence involving torture, death by burning and a strobe-light shootout also feels rather jarring and gives you the sense that Vaughn hasn’t quite got the confidence in pulling off this admittedly difficult sequence like he has on the rest of the film.

That sequence is one of several here that dangles on the very fine line between realistic and cartoonish violence. Some will be incensed by the profanity, others by the sex jokes – both of which are inconsequential. A 12-year-old saying cunt at one point is as risque as the swearing gets, while the closest thing to raunchiness on display is a shot of Dave and his female crush both in skimpy underwear in one scene which only shows that Johnson is a very gifted guy in more ways than one. A running joke about Katie mistaking Dave for being gay is cute but might give some very minor offense in the way the various characters react to it.

No, the biggest point of contention here is the violence – not the level but rather the tone which the film never seems sure on where it wants to settle. Violent satire on film is far more difficult to execute (pardon the pun) than you think and while many in this film’s target demo are easily satiated by even crude attempts at it, others could get quickly turned off by some scenes where Vaughn seems to visibly misjudge his approach.

On the one hand some sequences are fantastical bloody ballets with parkour and graphic dismemberment done solely for thrills. At other times though it becomes uncomfortable in its amoral apathy to brutality – from one character watching a loved one painfully die in front of them, to an initial outing by Kick Ass that involves a stabbing and car accident with grave consequences that are simply glossed over as yet another comic-related joke.

Some will laud that as one of its strengths, the inconsistency keeping the film challenging and from settling too much into a niche. It’s a fair enough call, but I’ll admit upfront I’m someone who has far less problems with a wildly shifting tone from scene to scene than most of my friends and colleagues and even I had issues here. Someone who demands a consistent tone will likely find the film far more of a challenge than I did.

“Kick Ass” is a ride and works on that level very well. It’s a shame though that looking deeper there isn’t much more despite desperate attempts to be greater with its refreshing insolence and bevy of colourful supporting characters. Like Edgar Wright’s superior cult classic “Hot Fuzz”, this ultra-slick action/comedy works best when it sticks to satirising rather than paying homage to the genre and at times loses its way when it tries to play it too straight (or in this case dark). Great fun, but could’ve been more.