Kick-Ass lives up to its name. Best movie I’ve seen at the theater in months. I had pretty high hopes going in–all the bad reviews I saw were focused on how violent it was, which just made me more excited–and sometimes that kind of anticipation makes the actual movie experience a let-down. Not so in this case. I had a smile on my face throughout the movie, which, while in some ways exactly what I was expecting, also managed to surprise me with its take on the superhero phenomenon.
Aaron Johnson plays the high school student comic geek who decides to become a masked hero (Kick-Ass) just because he can. His first foray lands him in the hospital with bones that need plates to heal and damaged nerve endings, but that is only a boon for his new line of work. When he’s back on the streets again, he meets a father-daughter duo (Nicolas Cage as Big Daddy and Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit Girl) who are real masked hero types–vast and astonishing collection of weapons, constant training with them, and a plan for their vigilante justice that involves taking down the biggest crime lord in New York City and taking sweet sweet revenge for the death of Chloe’s mother in the process.
Up front, I am not familiar with the comic book this movie is based on, other than knowing it exists. But there was I thought some very strong referents to comics. Some was simple self-awareness of a contemporary “superhero” story acknowledging the familiarity in our popular culture with the masked avenger but the rather startling lack of them in real life, and the frequent comic references from the high school geeks who hang out at the local comic shop. There were also scenes that were framed and colored like comic panels, along with as much ass-kicking as the title and premise suggests…just like any good superhero comic.
The biggest surprise to me in this movie was that it wasn’t completely farcical. The commercials make it seem like maybe a bit of a tongue in cheek violent romp through the park, but it in fact has a serious side. Essentially, that what Kick-Ass starts off doing is basically a stupid kid out to have an adventure; the situation he gets wrapped up in with Big Daddy and Hit Girl frightens him enough to want to quit putting on his mask. But by then it’s already too late; he’s been targeted by the crime boss (Mark Strong) and has to suffer the consequences right along with them. I was actually happy to see him presented in a way that made Big Daddy’s quip that he should called himself Ass-Kick so pertinent–not that many people are actually all that good at fighting, especially not when put up against those who have trained for a lifetime to do so. It gave the movie a much-needed edge of danger and reality to keep the story grounded.
Because there was definitely some flights-of-fancy awesomeness going on, most of it surrounding Hit Girl. She was the real star of this film, and Moretz played the part brilliantly, flipping between excited daddy’s-little-girl, teasing kid, and all-business superhero putting down roomfuls of grown men. Some of the best death sequences I’ve seen since Shoot ‘Em Up came with her pointing the gun. Also one of the best-filmed shoot-out scenes I’ve ever watched. It’s in a room that is completely dark, and it has four different motifs to keep the long–it was about 4 minutes–shoot-out interesting. First she puts on night-vision goggles and goes into a video-game first-person-shooter look. Then she uses a strobe light to make herself a hard target and we see what it looks like to be staring down at death in that form. Interspersed with these two styles are camera shots of empty blackness punctuated by flashes from the various guns. Finally someone lights a fire and she uses the strobe as a decoy, and we watch her come up from the side in strobe effect. And all of this was overlaid with one of my favorite pieces of cinematic music from the last decade, the intense, building, and dramatic “Sunshine, Adagio in D Minor” from the Sunshine soundtrack. It. Was. Awesome.
Surprisingly, this wasn’t an intensely bloody movie. There was a high body count and plenty of explicit violence, but relatively little blood spray and almost no use of blood for an artistic effect. The filming was good enough that it didn’t need to have pools of red adding color to an otherwise neutral room or anything like that, so despite the “hard R” rating it’s much more for the amount of violence and the fact that it shows a lot of deaths rather than because it has a high gore factor. I’m guessing that most of the “too violent” criticisms actually come from the 12-year-old girl being the center of so much death and mayhem. Swearing, as well, as she cracks jokes about the mayor having a sky signal that “looks like a giant cock” and ends one of the shoot-outs with the line “show’s over, motherfuckers” before she takes out the camera. But all of this is in keeping with her character as the beloved and well-trained daughter of a dangerous man bent on revenge, and I personally found her charming. All the characters were played well and cast well, actually, from the villains to the high school kids. She was the stand-out, but they all did a great job.
The music used was well-chosen throughout. As I mentioned, they used a John Murphy piece from Sunshine; I also picked out more Murphy from 28 Days Later, and some Ennio Morricone from For a Few Dollars More, along with pop music that complemented scenes either by being humorous (“Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley) or emphasizing the attitude of a character (“Bad Reputation” when Hit Girl is hitting it). This was a movie that was intentionally referencing other pieces of popular culture, which was only fitting when the storyline is based on someone trying to make a piece of that fantasy culture real.
If you’re thinking about seeing a movie with an R rating named Kick-Ass you have to have some expectation of violence. So, if you’re thinking about seeing it at all, that probably means you’re okay with a bit of the ole ultra-violence, in which case–go see this movie. Now. It was everything it should have been, and it left the ending wide open for sequels. If they’re going to be like this first installment, I say bring it. The world could use a little more ass kicking.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.