If a Quentin Tarantino movie is viewing pop culture on acid, “Kick-Ass,” which may be the first truly subversive movie of the new millenium, is Tarantino on crystal meth. Demented, twisted and even depraved, it certainly isn’t dull. It may also get a lot of people in the boardrooms and the theaters rethinking the whole concept of comic book adaptations.
This movie simply isn’t in the same genre as the big ticket DC or Marvel adaptations. For one thing, it was made for a fraction of what the name brands cost. (In the interest of full disclosure, the “Kick-Ass” comic books are published by Marvel, under their Icon imprint, which is a little like calling a movie an “independent” when it’s produced by a wholly subsidiary of a major studio.)
For another, Aaron Johnson plays Dave Lizewski, a geeky teenager who, rather than being bitten by a radioactive spider or being belted by gamma rays, simply decides to become a costumed superhero. Johnson, with other current young leading men like Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg and Jay Baruchel, is redefining the young male movie star the way Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino did in the seventies. When he orders himself a green and yellow wetsuit and starts practicing for his new vocation on rooftops and in alleyways, you somehow believe it. Before long, he starts up a “My Space” page for “Kick-Ass,” his new alter ego, and takes to the streets.
Nicholas Cage as “Big Daddy” in “Kick-Ass” Photo: Lionsgate Films (c) 2010
You kind of know from the get-go that this can only go so well. Dave has no super powers and he hasn’t studied ancient martial arts in the mysterious orient. And in fact he does nearly get himself killed taking on a couple of neighborhood thugs. But his new surgical hardware and deadened nerve endings only strengthen his resolve. While on a mission to straighten out the ex-boyfriend of the girl of his dreams (Lyndsy Fonseca, an up-and-comer who’s also in “Hot Tub Time Machine”), he nearly gets himself killed again but is rescued by two actual superheroes, “Big Daddy” and “Hit Girl.”
Only these superheroes use lethal force with abandon.
Nicholas Cage’s “Big Daddy” is a genuinely unnerving creation–Charles Bronson in the “Death Wish” movies blended with Ward Cleaver. CPS workers would have a field day with this guy, if they survived a home visit to his domestic fortress with its walls lined with automatic weapons. He’s raising his daughter Mindy to be “Hit Girl,” a post-feminist Robin to his homicidal Batman and she’s more unnerving than he is. Thirteen year old Chloe Moretz, a cross between Shirley Temple and Uma Thurman, is the genuine find in this movie. Moretz, who previously provided voiceovers for “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons, has more R-rated dialogue than the rest of the cast combined and she tosses it off so naturally that you’re inclined to spring to attention. And she actually perpetrates most of the movie’s strongest violence.
Chloe Moretz as “Hit Girl” in “Kick-Ass” Photo: Lionsgate Films (c) 2010
The mistake they’ve made with this movie is in the trailers that are leading audiences to think it’s cute. You’ve got a pre-adolescent girl acting like the lead in one of John Woo’s Hong Kong movies and the level of violence in this movie would hold its own with a John Woo movie. There’s some side-splitting humor, albeit dark, but this isn’t a family film. It’s a hard R, with actual frontal nudity about the only thing missing.
In addition, “Kick-Ass” legitimizes revenge and vigilante justice. The thing is, it never stops being fun. The movie is an open incitement to riot that’s presented so entertainingly you’re likely to forgive it.
Like Tarantino, co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn worships devotedly at the altar of popular culture. “Kick-Ass” is a chaotic pinata of pop culture references and Easter eggs that echo everything from “Enter the Dragon” to “The Matrix” to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Central scenes take place in a comic book store, where posters for Mike Mignola comics and Spider-Man statues remind the viewer where this movie lives and breathes. A major flashback is done in comic book panels, reminiscent of the anime flashback in “Kill Bill, Volume I.” The references whip by the viewer so fast it’s unlikely you can catch them all, which will make the movie all the more popular on DVD. Like Tarantino, Vaughn uses an eclectic grab bag of found music, ranging from Mozart to Ennio Morricone to Joan Jett and the Runaways.
“Kick-Ass” is delightfully depraved, as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into.