Tuesday, April 20, 2010
In an essay about violence in the movies in last Saturday’s New York Times, A. O. Scott clucks about the carnage in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Kick-Ass. “We will, I suppose, each find our own limits and draw our own boundaries, but it may also be time to articulate those and say when enough is enough,” he says.
I’d go along with that. What I don’t understand is why so many people are drawing the line at this little wink of a movie.
Deciding how much violence is too much is not an easy line to draw. It falls in different places for different people – and it can move. Personally, I hate movies that exist just to rub our faces in scenes of extreme and realistic-looking mayhem, or that present war or gore as the solution to a problem. But I can take a lot of violence if it’s abstracted enough not to feel real, or if it’s used to tell a story about something deeper than the shock and awe of torture porn. That’s why I love most of Quentin Tarantino’s gorgeous, word-drunk movies. For me, they’re about the pleasure of marinating in an expertly executed genre story in the company of memorable characters. Well, yeah, some of those characters kill people, in elaborately choreographed torture sessions and death matches that are staged for our entertainment. But what really interests Tarantino, I think, is why his characters do what they do. His movies don’t exploit violence; they explore it.
The same goes does Kick-Ass, though it’s jokier and less stylish than Tarantino’s stuff.
Born of a comic book, Kick-Ass touches on our worship of cartoonish violence and revenge fantasies, with a pointedly light tone and level of analysis. At first glance, there’s nothing new about this tale of organized crime-fighting superheroes in New York City, aside from the fact that it stars an 11-year-old girl superhero. Whether or not you like the movie will probably depend largely on whether you find Hit Girl (the excellent Chloe Moretz) refreshing or shocking. A lot of people were offended by seeing a girl that young using such salty language and perpetrating and enduring such extreme violence. Some are also concerned about the 13-year-old actress who played her.
To me, it seems naïve at best, and possibly paternalistic, to protest the corruption of Hit Girl’s innocence when our culture routinely exposes girls of that age and younger to much rougher stuff. Kids these days have a lot to deal with, and cartoonish revenge fantasies are probably a very effective way to deal with some of it. And it’s about time the superhero boys’ club started admitting girls, if you ask me.
But Hit Girl isn’t the only thing that makes this story stand out. As he did in Stardust, cowriter and director Matthew Vaughn spices up a straightforward fantasy a little bit by commenting on it, giving it enough self-awareness so media-savvy 21st-century kids won’t find it too corny. This time, he and his cowriters (Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr. wrote the comic and Jane Goldman cowrote the screenplay) create a meta-fantasy by telling Hit Girl’s story through the lens of a regular guy who aspires to do what she does.
Dave Lizewski (a likeably self-effacing Aaron Johnson) is a better-than-average-looking but otherwise unremarkable high school student. He longs to be a superhero, although, as he laments in a nicely written voiceover, his only superpower is “being invisible to girls.” He goes for it anyway, mail-ordering a dorky-looking jumpsuit and mask to become Kick-Ass, a self-made capeless crusader.
Kick-Ass gets a serious beat-down on his first outing, but on his second he saves a stranger from a gang. His awkward battle is captured on cell phone video, making him “the latest Internet phenomenon” – and bringing him to the attention of Hit Girl and her father/trainer, Big Daddy (a surprisingly restrained Nicolas Cage), who enlist him as an ally.
A fanatical pair of self-taught vigilantes with a fantastic arsenal of weapons, Hit Girl and Big Daddy can do incredible things, although they don’t actually have any super powers. We’ve heard that story before, of course, in Batman. In fact, most of what happens in Kick-Ass feels deeply familiar, a fact the movie cheerfully acknowledges with winks like Big Daddy’s Batman-ish superhero getup, Dave’s Taxi Driver-esque practice moves in front of the mirror, a slow-mo shot of two guys running out of a blazing building, and too many nick-of-time saves to count. There’s even a nod to the murderous schoolgirl in Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
But watching a regular guy struggle to make it as a superhero while a little girl goes in for the kill gives Kick-Ass enough kick to make it worth seeing.
If you like this kind of thing, that is.