We learn everything we need to know about Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), soon to be known as Kick-Ass, in his opening monologue: he is a teenager remarkable only in how unremarkable he is; a bit on the nerdy side, he's got two friends funner than he is (though even more forgettable) and an unrequited crush on a girl named Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). To put it in his words, "I just existed." Unfortunately, I tend to agree: Dave does little over the next two hours to distinguish himself, the end result being a movie whose unanchored violence leaves us at sea in terms of whether what we're watching is meant to be taken with an open mind or a grain of salt. Such is the world of Kick-Ass.
One of the film's most glaring flaws is that it isn't consistent with its own logic. The first 15 minutes of the movie are devoted almost entirely to subverting the superhero myth by establishing how painfully normal both its world and its protagonist are, only to abandon that angle half an hour later. What makes Dave unique, we're led to believe, is that he has no superpowers of any kind; he isn't bitten by a spider, privy to a vast fortune, or even out for revenge; he's just a skinny kid who wants to help people. Problem is, Dave gets stabbed and run over the first time he puts his plan to action (note: this is one of the most realistic scenes in the movie), which necessitates that a series of metal plates be infused with his bones.
Needless to say, this heightens his pain threshold considerably. This hiccup in logic would be less of an issue if it ended up affecting the plot much, but it doesn't. Instead, it invites an immediate comparison to Wolverine (something Dave himself happily acknowledges) and contradicts the movie's own premise that Dave is fundamentally different from other superheroes when, in truth, there's little setting him apart from someone like Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne. Like them, his heroism lies in his moral fiber and the choices he makes. Everything else—their costumes, abilities, and catchphrases—is just an embellishment. That Kick-Ass attempts to reinvent the superhero genre while misunderstanding one of its central tenets is a bit troubling.
Newfound endurance aside, Dave is still a bit of a lightweight. Most of the legwork is done by the far more capable (not to mention charismatic and interesting) Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloë Moretz), a father-daughter team who are independently wealthy and out for revenge. The two are easily the most captivating characters in the film, sometimes to the point of making us wonder why it isn't named after them instead. Both are throwbacks in a way—Cage channels Adam West's portrayal of Batman in the '60s, while Moretz brings Natalie Portman in The Professional to mind—and, by the time we meet them, we've all but abandoned the notion that the world in which the film takes place is anywhere as real as we're told it is.
Kick-Ass, it must be said, is unapologetically violent and profane—or, in terms more consistent with the tone of the film, a fucking bloodbath—with a body count nearing the triple digits, many of whom meet their grisly end at the hands of the 11-year-old Hit Girl. All well and good. And though watching a little girl slaughter a room full of addicts and low-lives is jarring at first, the long-term effect is largely dulling. In killing so many nameless bad guys in such increasingly glorified and absurd ways, the film makes us care less each time, not least because the price the good guys pay is nowhere near what they dole out. But hey, Kick-Ass isn't a film that aspires to the dramatic depths of The Dark Knight or even the sheer likability of Iron Man; it's a trigger-happy popcorn flick with some genuinely arresting visuals and an almost unsettlingly good performance from Moretz.
If I haven't said much in the way of what Kick-Ass is about yet, I suppose that's because it doesn't seem to be about much at all. Movies like this work best when the violence and gore they present us with act as vehicles for a certain thought or idea, but this does the opposite. Both its plot and inconsistent message seem little more than an excuse to show us a man explode inside an industrial-strength microwave. Which, again, would be perfectly fine if only it were a bit more honest in its intentions. Kick-Ass is a movie that seemingly intends to make us think, but instead leaves us thoughtless by the time we watch a man shot out of his high-rise apartment building by a bazooka fired at him from a few feet away. Rarely has such a simple film confused me so much.
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