I would never describe myself as a comic book geek. Or a lover of graphic novels as a friend of mine prefers to call himself. Indeed, to me you can keep your Spider Men and your X-men. I simply have no interest in these characters. However, when a superhero movie truly crosses the genre boundaries and offers me something different – a different perspective if you will, then I am very much interested. The Nolan Batman films I love, and I also was one of the few that really enjoyed Superman Returns – which I saw as a love letter to the film I had seen as a nine year old in the cinema. Snyder’s Watchmen earlier this year also found a way into my personal collection as I loved the different window that film offered into the very soul of the super hero. Matthew Vaughan’s Kick-Ass was not on my radar at all until it suddenly appeared on the cover of Empire as a lenticular image the month before release. To me, then, it seemed interesting but not the kind of film to tempt me into the local multiplex. It looked to me as if it might have been a rather shallow take on the genre – relying too much on the controversial image of a pre-pubescent girl swearing like a trooper and disembowelling various bad guys.
Subsequently, I got involved with a debate on Twitter with Jonathan Ross on the merits of Kick-Ass. He declared it to be the best super-hero film ever made. I was under the impression that he had only said this because his wife wrote it, and suggested that The Dark Knight was the righteous holder to that title. Well, you know what? Neither of us were right. But Ross was a hell of a lot closer to the truth than I was. Kick-Ass is a stunning film – and has so much more to offer than mere controversy.
Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) and his geeky mates live a typical teenage existence. Invisible to girls, spending most of their downtime in the local comic shop, and getting bullied and mugged regularly. After one particular mugging, which is witnessed by a passer-by who doesn’t do anything to help, Dave decides to do something. He purchases a wetsuit online, and dons a mask before heading out onto the streets as Kick-Ass – a new kind of super hero. His first task comes rather unexpectedly, when he comes across his two muggers breaking into a car. He takes them on, only to end up in hospital. A few operations, and some metal plate inserts later, he suddenly finds his superhero power. The ability to survive kicks and punches that would fell most men. This enables him to take on a group of strangers who are assaulting an individual, and after the incident is filmed on a mobile phone, the video goes viral and Kick-Ass becomes a celebrity.
This brings him to the attention of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) – a foul mouthed girl who has a nice line in super-hero parody. When asked how she can be contacted she replies that the police beam an image of a gigantic cock into the clouds! The three eventually have to team up to take on an evil drug baron, whilst at the same time Dave has to try and pick up the girl of his dreams who is convinced he is gay.
I am not qualified here to comment on how well the film transfers the novel to the screen. I have never read the original graphic novel. But what I can say is that the material makes for a very entertaining film, and under the guidance of Matthew Vaughan it makes a very successful one. Yes, the film is very violent indeed – and some of the violence is perpetrated by and on a little girl. But Vaughan manages to bring a lightness of touch to proceedings that go a long way towards making these events palatable. Take, for example, the introduction of Hit-Girl. The carnage is sound-tracked by an anarchic punk version of The Banana Splits theme – the Director’s way of saying that despite the limb-hacking she is performing this is really just a cartoon performed by real actors. Now, of course some have found this to still be offensive. However the Director chooses to portray it – the words and actions Moretz is required to perform are unprecedented in the history of cinema. As a moral question this cannot be avoided. But my personal feeling is that it is a dilemma which diminishes when you watch the film – it sounds more disturbing than it actually is. This is down to the skill of the editing which manages to not dwell on the violence whilst still portraying it in graphic detail.
I probably haven’t explained that very well, so let me try and elaborate. In the hands of some directors the material here would have been too difficult for audiences to handle on the cinema screen. This is probably key to why the film struggled to find a distributor initially. But Vaughan handles the material incredibly well. Every action is exaggerated just enough to make it ridiculous (characters fly through the air like they’re in a video game). Every violent act is shown, then cut away from: just quick enough for it to register with the audience, but not long enough for it to be dwelt upon. The result is that an incredibly violent film with an underage girl doing quite shocking things is still deservedly rated a 15. It really is a directorial performance that is up there with the best in the way that he handles the material. The style is also very kinetic, but never does it suffer from the typical action movie style where you cannot see what is going on during an action scene. The angles that the director shoots from, the way he moves the camera – every moment of every fight is clear on the screen. And there are some incredibly cool moments here too. If I start listing them then this review will end up ridiculously long so let’s just mention a very cool slo-mo weapons reload as one example. Your hoary old Expendables have nothing on this!
Yet the beauty of this film, and what makes it such a success is that it is not just about the action and the violence. The writers manage to develop the characters really well. The three central geeks’ relationship is fantastically portrayed – and although the central romantic relationship is clichéd I could not help but really root for them. If a man who has watched too many movies for his own good, and whose cynicism gland works overtime can fall for the characters in this way then a very good job has been done.
Of course, however good the writing is the actors have to do justice to the script and this they certainly do. I cannot honestly say that I am familiar with any of the actors here apart from Nicholas Cage – who is not my favourite performer. But this is one of those casts where you cannot imagine anyone else playing the roles. Johnson as Kick-Ass is near perfect – looking geeky at the start but growing more and more confident as the movie progresses. He even looks slightly different, as if he is carrying himself better by the end. I certainly look forward to seeing Nowhere Boy even more now. Likewise Christopher Mintz-Plasse who plays Chris / Red Mist / and a third character who I won’t mention (as it is both a major spoiler and also a name that I could not possibly mention on a family website) also shows a nice development from the beginning to the end of the movie.
But Nicholas Cage as Big Daddy just knocks the role out of the ball-park. In his every day guise he manages to infuse pathos into his character, and as Big Daddy he channels Adam West to magnificent effect. This has been said many times in reviews, and I was a little bit worried about how it might play on screen – but I needn’t have been. It is a performance that strikes the perfect balance between emotion, violence, and comedy – and as such is the perfect fit for the movie. Likewise Chloe Moretz lights up the screen as Hit Girl, moving athletically, taking out goons with glee, and in the final scene portraying a vulnerability which is touching.
The film also knows just when to stop – weighing in at a near perfect 117 minutes and not succumbing to the modern trend of lengthy blockbusters. At no point does the pace flag, and the director constantly strikes a near perfect balance of entertaining and moving the audience without every patronising them or steering the film into exploitative territory. It is certainly an impressive feat.
I have no idea if the graphic novel takes the story any further – but it is undeniable that the final reel (which is one of the most beautifully shot scenes in the whole film) strongly suggests a sequel – and when I was doing my research I see that Kick-Ass 2 : Balls To The Wall is scheduled for 2012. If they keep the cast and production crew together then you can rest assured that I will be the first in the queue in my local multiplex. In the meantime – the rewatch value of this disc will mean I will be revisiting this world many times. No Mr. Ross – it is not the greatest superhero film ever made. It is not better than The Dark Knight. But in its own way it is just as impressive an achievement – and a film that crosses so many boundaries that it is likely to find a permanent place in many collections. Apart from those of Daily Mail readers maybe.