Monday, July 26, 2010

On DVD: "Kick-Ass"

Matthew Vaughn is a director of skill and finesse, as anyone fortunate enough to see Layer Cake can attest; he's also at an absolute loss when stuck with the wrong kind of material, as the seven people who saw Stardust will tell you. His latest picture, Kick-Ass, sports a poppy, jazzy look, and has individual sequences that are as wickedly entertaining as any in recent memory. But it suffers from a confused tone; Vaughn can't seem to decide the degree of seriousness with which he's taking the material, and leaves the viewer unsure of exactly how the hell to react to it.

It starts off badly, badly, badly. We meet Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a high school geek who longs to be a superhero, and while the set-up sequence is quick and efficient, it's played with the crass low humor (but none of the wit) of a high school comedy like Superbad. Throughout the first act, Vaughn's comic timing is just a little askew; the punch lines are obvious, and not brought off with any particular panache. Johnson doesn't help matters much--he isn't all that engaging as a lead, barely there as a placeholder for the far more interesting supporting characters.

Chief among them are Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). He's a former cop who did five years in jail after a set-up by dirty cops, ordered by crime boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong); she's his 11-year-old daughter, who he's training in martial arts, marksmanship, and swordplay. Dave stumbles into Internet celebrity as superhero Kick-Ass, but Big Daddy and Hit Girl are the real thing, ruthless and effective crime fighters with an eye on D'Amico.

The character of Hit Girl, and the abuse she dishes out and takes, was the subject of Roger Ebert's widely discussed one-star pan of the film. Re-reading that review after seeing Kick-Ass, one can see how he was off the mark (it's an altogether too-literal reading of the material), but his discomfort with the violence is understandable. Vaughn doesn't engage in "comic book violence," at least not in the traditional sense--these characters exist in closer proximity to the real world, so Kick-Ass is stabbed and hit by a car in his first crime-fighting attempt, and when he takes on a trio of gang-bangers in the encounter that makes him famous, the punches and kicks are real, bone-crunching, and bloody. There is, indeed, some stylistic flourish to the bloodshed, but it takes some time for the film to find it; in the early sequences, the incongruity of the real violence (mostly played straight) with the comic book sensibility is problematic. It's hard to snicker at the comedy when it's jammed up against real brutality.

But, contrary to Ebert's thesis, the film actually seems to find its footing in the Hit Girl sequences; the scene where she saves Kick-Ass from a room full of shifty characters is an absolute show-stopper. Much of that is thanks to Moretz (so memorable in (500) Days of Summer), who infuses the character with a giddy, charming enthusiasm; part of it is Vaughn, who may not know from tone but knows how to put a tight, tough action scene together. Hit Girl also gets the film's best action beat (given almost entirely away by the trailers), a slam-bang sequence that begins with a Morricone cue and ends with a bender of stylized gunplay and acrobatics reminiscent of vintage John Woo. Vaughn gives Cage's Big Daddy a similar set piece, taking out D'Amico's entire crew in about a minute flat, which should calm the nerves of anyone concerned about his upcoming gig directing an X-Men flick. As for Cage himself, well, his out-of-costume scenes with Moretz have a warm, grinning kick to them, though he adopts an odd, affected voice when in costume--it's a kind of cross between a robot and a Christopher Walken impression (is he kidding that voice Christian Bale uses as Batman, whose costume his resembles? Who knows). In moments like that, and his oddly overwrought final scenes, you wish he'd stop being such a weirdo and just play the damned scenes.

The other supporting performances are mostly stellar. Mark Strong is quite good, in a very different kind of villainous role than he played in Sherlock Holmes, while Sorpanos alum Michael Rispoli lends some weight and gets some laughs, as does dryly funny Clark Duke (from Hot Tub Time Machine). Christopher Mintz-Plasse doesn't punch past the surface, though, and while Lyndsy Fonseca is lovely, her romance with Dave is a dud. There's also a strangely 2006 vibe to the proceedings, what with all the MySpace references and heavy play for Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." But the throwaway gags are often good (an early scene outside a movie theater shows a marquee for The Spirit 3), and the film does in its third act what these stories do--despite the tonal unsteadiness, we're drawn into the story and have a real rooting interest in its outcome.

The broadly comic first half of Kick-Ass gets the picture off to a wobbly start, but once director Vaughn and his cast get down to business, it plays. It's not a great super hero movie, or a great comic book parody--it's wildly uneven, but there's no denying that when it works, it really works.

"Kick-Ass" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, August 3rd. For full A/V and bonus features, read this review at DVD Talk


  1. Wow, I'm usually a fan of your reviews (probably because we have a similar taste) but I can't believe your remark about Stardust which was absolutely great. I may have watched that film 10 times in a row as it's just a perfect mix of (rather black) humour, romance and action - extremely well cut with beautiful cinematography and wonderful music. And just how awesome is the drowning of Septimus? And the following puppet fight? Those were seven lucky people!

  2. I haven't seen "Stardust" since my one viewing on its original theatrical release, but I found my old notes for it:

    Friday’s final film at the Empire 25 was Stardust (**), an occasionally inventive but mostly belabored fairy tale from director Matthew Vaughn, who started out producing films for Guy Ritchie before making his own impressive debut with Layer Cake, one of the most hard-boiled crime pictures in many a moon. Kudos to Vaughn for changing things up here, but Stardust simply never comes together; there are a variety of interesting things happening, but the level of involvement from this viewer was virtually nil. It paints all the way to the edges of its large canvas, but there’s not much in the way of human interest here.

    And to top things off, and I’d never guess I’d write these words, Robert DeNiro stinks in it. His turn, as a closet-queen pirate ship captain, is absolutely terrible; our generation’s finest actor makes no commitment whatsoever to the character—we’re just supposed to laugh at the fact that it’s him, all but winking at us, and that’s just not good enough. The characterization has all the depth of a late-season guest shot on Will & Grace. It’s atrocious. The film isn’t terrible, but it’s not good enough to stick out in a particularly sticky August.

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