19 April 2010

With no power comes no responsibility

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Matthew Vaughn’s big-screen adaptation of the graphic novel Kick-Ass, which opened in the UK a couple of weeks ago and was unleashed on general audiences in America on Friday, is a much-anticipated comic crossover that has attracted considerable media attention.  The artfully-concocted controversy surrounding the prospect of a child actor using bad language gained the movie a great deal of pre-release exposure and virtually guaranteed a good turn-out at the cinema.  But is it worth the hype?  And is Kick-Ass a film of lasting quality or a missed opportunity?

There is certainly a wealth of potential to make a film that stands out as both a memorable film and a cinema event that can be looked back on with a certain fondness in years to come.  It boasts a novel storyline, appealing and potentially iconic characters, and a perennially popular teen underdog theme.  But while Kick-Ass is certainly entertaining, and hopefully it will be a success for its backers, it falls short of achieving the status of a lasting success.  It is held back by a willingness to conform to somewhat outdated film conventions, a certain lack of independent spirit, and perhaps even a paucity of decent jokes.

So what’s wrong with Kick-Ass

[Warning: mild plot spoilers ahead]

Originally the story of Kick-Ass was to have been about the distinctive
and appealing father and daughter pairing of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz, who was in (500) Days Of Summer as the worldly-wise little sister).  United by a lust for vengeance against a stereotypical crime lord for the wife/mother death that’s seemingly inevitable in the comic book setting, the nerdish vigilante father and precocious ninja tween accelerate the pace of every scene they’re in. 

Big Daddy is a relatively unremarkable character, but Hit Girl is clearly a winner in terms of generating both fanboy adulation and newspaper column inches.  For who could possibly resist the image of a foul-mouthed and seemingly invincible urchin despatching villains with heartless ultra-violence?  Surely when the producers saw the graphic novel portraits of Hit Girl in pigtails and schoolgirl pinafore, brandishing a silenced assassin’s pistol, they must’ve scrambled to secure the film rights, no matter what the cost.

The problem with making a film about a father and daughter killing machine is that it’s been done before.  Leon may not have been strictly about a family relationship, given that Jean Reno and Natalie Portman’s characters in Luc Besson’s 1994 film weren’t related, but there’s still the same dynamic of a streetwise young girl being tutored in the ways of mortal combat by a father figure.  True, Hit Girl is much more of a self-confident protagonist than Portman’s character Mathilda.  But it was quickly realised that a much wider audience could be reached if a teenage male protagonist could be worked into the mix.

_12505418769834So the focus of the story shifted towards every-dweeb Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who buys a naff diving suit and styles himself as a bargain basement superhero, the titular Kick-Ass.  Actor Aaron Johnson, fresh from a quality performance as John Lennon in the excellent Nowhere Boy, is likeable in the role and nails the American accent completely.  (What are the odds that Michael Cera was considered for the role?)  Quite sensibly, Dave is not portrayed as an all-powerful hero.  He’s actually pretty naff, in a good way – at one point he muses, ‘with no power comes no responsibility’.  A potentially crippling injury is thrown into the mix in almost a slapdash fashion, with the resulting reconstructive surgery and nerve damage thereby explaining at least some of Kick-Ass’ ability to absorb enormous amounts of whupping that befall him.        

But while the haphazard brawls Kick-Ass picks with thugs and lowlifes are moderately brutal, once Hit Girl and Big Daddy come on the scene and begin dishing out their unyielding revenge, the violence levels are ramped up exponentially, to a gruesome and almost fetishistic level.  For a generation of filmgoers who have grown up on the cartoon gore of 300 and Sin City, or who regard the Saw ‘torture porn’ franchise as light entertainment, this is probably nothing out of the ordinary.  Which is disturbing in a way, because Kick-Ass makes a point of depicting its vengeful heroes as heartless perpetrators of inevitable dismemberment and death.  In these scenes, it’s not about Kick-Ass’ bumbling yet still bloody efforts: the focus is firmly on grim, merciless ultra-violence.  No asses are actually kicked.  Rather, limbs are messily sliced off, brains are pierced with high-velocity slugs with associated spurts of animated blood, and chests are pierced with wicked blades, all in apparently mandatory gory slow-motion.

The lack of moral complexity in these scenes is worrying.  In V For Vendetta, another graphic novel cross-over, it was the palpable sense that the vigilante justice being dished out by the masked revolutionary was vicious and in many ways inhumane that made the character more interesting.  (It didn’t make the violence any more palatable though.  What is this fascination with lopping off limbs these days?)  On the other hand, the violence in Kick-Ass is treated as straight entertainment, and the film suffers somewhat for it – can a character who puts to death run-of-the-mill thugs and molls who are clearly attempting to run away be regarded as heroic?  After all, in this post-Abu Ghraib age, isn’t it important to be able to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys?

Roger Ebert found the film’s violence depressing:

The early scenes give promise of an entirely different comedy. Aaron Johnson has a certain anti-charm, his problems in high school are engaging, and so on. A little later, I reflected that possibly only Nic Cage could seem to shoot a small girl point-blank and make it, well, funny. Say what you will about her character, but Chloe Grace Moretz has presence and appeal. Then the movie moved into dark, dark territory, and I grew sad. 

I tend to agree.  I don’t have a problem with Hit Girl swearing like a docker, nor would I have been bothered if they had left in the scene in which she deploys cocaine from a Hello Kitty bag for a pre-fight pick-me-up.  (I actually think that’s pretty funny, in a daring, ‘totally wrong’ sort of way).  The film’s co-writer, Jane Goldman, thinks a skewed set of priorities are operating here:

‘If people are startled by Hit-Girl’s violence,’ she says, ‘that’s something they’re entitled to feel, but the fact that they would probably be more startled by the fact that she says “c---” I’ve always felt people overreact appallingly to bad language.’ 

That’s a fair point.  But ultimately it’s the violence that weakens Kick-Ass.  The continuing improvements in film CGI techniques has meant that increasingly directors are able to depict onscreen violence in increasingly realistic and gory fashion.  But in doing so, they’ve reduced the humanity of the characters they’re depicting, blurring the lines between heroes and villains so comprehensively that a film that depicts combat without buckets of blood would doubtless be derided as a sanitised white-wash.  Contrast the then-shocking scenes of violence in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, banned for many years in Britain.  They are tame by comparison with modern slasher-ethos films, but still achieve their dramatic intent through good acting and using the viewers’ own imaginations to fill in the gaps.  

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Kick-Ass also sets out a distinctly unimpressive depiction of female teenagers.  Mainstream movies that are intended for a wide audience usually make at least a nod in the direction of the equality of the sexes, but Kick-Ass makes no such efforts.  Dave Lizewski’s love interest, the so-out-of-his-league Katy (Lyndsy Fonseca), is an embarrassingly one-dimensional male wish fulfilment fantasy, falling into bed with Dave despite a betrayal of confidence that would earn anyone in the real world a punch up the bracket and a bum’s rush to the door.  Once he hooks up with Katy the film veers dangerously close to Spider-Man clichĂ© territory.  Similarly, Katy’s pal Erika (Sophie Wu) hooks up with nerdish Marty (Clark Duke, who is nearly 25!) for no good reason.  Perhaps the presence of the all-vanquishing Hit Girl was thought to be sufficiently empowering for female viewers. 

It’s a pity considering that many teenage girls will see this film: after all, their only positive role model is a murderous 11-year-old girl.  The rest of the female characters are inconsequential doormats.  Given that the screenplay was co-written by a woman (Goldman, who also wrote Stardust with Matthew Vaughn; she is married to TV personality and fellow comics fan Jonathan Ross), perhaps a somewhat loftier portrayal of young women could’ve been hoped for.  Compare, if you’re interested, with the female characters in Greg Mottola’s Adventureland or the peerless Judd Apatow TV series Freaks & Geeks: believable isn’t that hard to achieve.     

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As an aside, there are four notable music choices in the film that are interesting.  The first Hit Girl killing spree is soundtracked with The Dickies’ punk-pop rendition of the Banana Splits’ Tra La La Song, aiming for knowing cool and lessening the visceral impact of the violence.  It helps to tone down the gore and reminds the viewer that the maiming is meant to be regarded as ‘comic-book’, even if the spurting red undermines this.  When Kick-Ass realises he has a potential rival in do-goodery, the mysterious Red Mist, the soundtrack kicks in with a montage to This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, the 1974 classic by Sparks.  This is still a fantastic tune, and it fits the scene perfectly.  Similarly, the use of Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation (which has appeared in numerous films and was the theme for Freaks & Geeks) is punchy, rebellious and exuberant, and enhances the breakneck speed of the fight scene.  The only potentially duff note is the use of Elvis Presley’s version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which struck me as stodgy and insufficiently upbeat for the heroic finale that it soundtracks.   

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By the time that finale rolled around I was wondering if Kick-Ass would go the way of Pineapple Express – tacking on a lingering, unwelcome fight scene to stretch the film way beyond its natural life.  By no means was Kick-Ass anywhere near as bad as that, but it could certainly have benefited from five or ten minutes being snipped from its running time near the end.  As a mark of a reasonable film that could have been a minor classic, this is another pity.  Still, perhaps they’ll fix this in the inevitable and unsubtly-flagged sequel?

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